Let me start with this: Dear Committee Members has the best flap copy ever:
“Finally, a novel that puts the ‘pissed’ back in epistolary.”
I hadn’t been aware it had ever been there. Regardless, this book had me laughing out loud from beginning to end, and squirming at the places in between.
Jay Fitger (who shall be referred to hereafter as Mr. Crankypants) is a Creative Writing professor at a small Midwest college. He is middle-aged, burnt-out, and disillusioned. The English Department is (as per usual) getting the shaft when it comes to funding and office space while the Economics Department is feted royally. His star grad student’s brilliance is being ignored, and his love life is in shambles. Sadly, these last two are the direct result of Mr. Crankypants’ antisocial behavior. It isn’t a coincidence that a porcupine’s ass graces the cover of this book.
The familiarity of the subject matter is given a fresh look through it’s delivery–the entire thing is written in the format of letters of recommendation (LOR). Anyone who has spent time in higher education (whether as professor or student) is aware of the ubiquitous nature of the LOR. Julie wrote a sassy article about it for the Chronicle of Higher Education. In this article she demonstrates the declining usefulness of these letters, even pointing out that she has on more than one occasion received and opened a LOR she herself had written.
Julie quite remarkably uses a series of LORs to give a view into the frustrations and absurdities of Mr. Crankypants’ life in academia. If it weren’t so funny it would be quite sad. Especially considering that most of the time (I suspect) LORs often go unread. They are a requirement for grad school and often first jobs, but the formulaic nature of such things leaves little room for creativity or imagination. At least that is what one would expect. Mr. Crankypants puts forth evidence to the contrary.
Julie Schumacher is a Creative Writing professor at the University of Minnesota. She was also my Creative Writing professor way back in 199-none-of-your-business. She dedicated this book to her students, which makes me feel a little better since I am 99% sure she wrote me a letter of recommendation once. Hence, all the squirming.
Now that I think about it, this whole review is an LOR of sorts, isn’t it?
Rock on, Julie!