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dear committee members

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Jay Fitger is a middle-aged professor of English and creative writing at Payne (pun intended) University, by his own admission a “second-tier,” liberal arts college.  Though fully-tenured, he is sagging under the pressures of a writing career in neutral, a personal life in reverse, and the general neglect of the liberal arts in academia.

Nevertheless, numerous students and colleagues request letters of recommendation from him for things ranging from administrative positions at the college to jobs in paintball emporiums to $400 scholarships. Fitger completes these letters and does mention the recommendee, but feels free to add whatever else he wants. Personal issues, critique of the institution to which he writes, and praise of the traditional letter as opposed to the electronic form are common themes.

A representative sample:

Dear Committee Members,

This letter recommends Ms. Stella Castle to your graduate institution in the field of public policy. And to begin the recommendation on the proper footing: no, I will not fill out the inane computerized form that is intended to precede or supplant this letter; ranking a student according to his or her placement among the “top 10 percent,” “top 2 percent,” or “top 0.000001percent” is pointless and absurd. No faculty member will rank any student, no matter how severely lacking in ability or reason, below “top 10 percent.” This would be tantamount to describing the candidate in question as a witless beast. A human being and his or her caliber, intellect, character, and promise are not reducible to a check mark in a box. Faced with a reductionist formula such as yours, I despair for the future, consoling myself with the thought that I and others of my generation, with its archaic modes of discourse, won’t live to see the barren cyberworld the authors of your recommendation form are determined to create.

Even if you sympathize with Fitger’s sentiments, it’s hard to see how such a letter can help Ms. Castle regardless of what praise he heaps on her after this first paragraph.

In my own life as an academic, I have known my share of Fitgers. They are pompous, self-centered, and not very nice. The (mostly unacknowledged) privilege they enjoy is matched only by the degree to which they feel persecuted and powerless. It is a potent brew. In Dear Committee Members, Julie Shumacher has captured them in all their delicious irony. I see it as a cautionary tale: there but through compassion, love, and hopefully humility go I.

 

 

cover her face

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The Maxie family is English, landed, and cash-poor. The son works as a doctor in London. The daughter is divorced and living at home with her mother. Together with a long-faithful servant, they can barely keep up the house and nurse the invalid father, near death. When they hire an unwed mother with an infant son and some attitude above her station, it’s not hard to see who will die. Who did it is another story.

With more red herrings than a fish market and P. D. James’ cheeky, understated prose, it’s a pleasure to read. If, in the end, she implies that the victim is to blame, I put that down to a previous generation’s sensibility (the novel was published in 1962) and the class differences that so often pervade English literature. If you like British mystery shows like Father Brown or Midsomer Murders, you’ll enjoy the book.

geek love

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Katherine Dunn reportedly said, “All the time I was working on Geek Love, it was like my own private autism.” If so, Dunn’s interior life is subtle and complex and a little creepy. She sees under the simulacrum of “norm” family life that we present publicly to another world of secrecy, manipulation, and pain.

Start with a couple, Al and Lily Binewski, who own and operate a traveling carnival. They have the standard midway games and concessions. Contortionists, sword swallowers, geeks, acrobats, and lion tamers all vie to remove dollars from the pockets of lookie loos that wander to the show. But the big draws have been literally bred by the Binewskis through a pregnancy diet of drugs and other poisons. The resulting birth defects range widely in severity. Some of the babies don’t live; they are preserved in jars, regularly polished, and viewed for a price. The survivors include a legless, armless, “Aqua Boy”; Siamese twins joined from the waist down (they play piano four-hands); and a humpback, albino dwarf (not strange enough for an act of her own, but still useful as a general purpose assistant). Their final child appears so normal they are about to leave him at a laundromat in the middle of the night when they discover his special power.

The family is obsessively private, yet make their living through blatant exhibitionism. With no permanent home aside from a 38-foot trailer, they consider “stuck homes” a trap compared to the freedom they enjoy. Their days are filled with training for their acts, the nights with performing. The surface is all freak. Roiling and dysfunctional dynamics — deep misunderstanding between parents and children, jealousy among the kids — rival any telenovela family. Their insularity is both their power and the undoing.

As horrifying as the idea of purposely creating birth defects is, it’s not the most disturbing thing that happens in the book. Indeed, we learn to sympathize with the children and their parents. We see their humanity and watch with disgust as others react violently to their presence. Conventional notions of normalcy and ethical behavior are called into question.

Beautiful writing, Shakespearean pathos, and fine attention to detail make for a finely-wrought world that — like a voyeur paying to see the freaks — I was fascinated to visit, but happier still to return from to my “normal” life.

seveneves

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It’s hard to say a lot about Neal Stephenson’s latest solo-written novel without spoiling its best ideas and plot twists. Since many of the books pleasures comes from those, I will settle for saying that the palindromic title presages the overall cleverness of the book. Depending on your interests you will probably find the balance of discursiveness versus plot off from time to time, but overall Stephenson’s careful explanation of concepts in the context of a complex social, political, and cultural framework is world building at its best. I don’t know if he has sequels in mind, but there is plenty of potential for it in the rich story he has created.

groomed for murder

Looking for a fun read with some mystery and a little sex? Look no further than Vivian Rhodes’ Groomed for Murder. Set in Los Angeles and written in a breezy style that fits the SoCal vibe, the book is marred for my ears by frequent sexist language and assumptions. Nevertheless, the plot is solid and the characters are well-formed. It’ll  hold your attention and keep you turning pages.

the last detective

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If you like a mystery in the English style (think Midsommer Murders), then The Last Dectective is right up your alley. Smoothly written, with interesting characters and some unexpected twists, the novel is a solid contribution to the genre. Themes include the conflict of the technology with “old-fashioned” smarts, trouble with authority, and the use and misuse of police power.

old school

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Stories are important to me. I think stories are important to most people. We use them to share our days, our lives, and our histories. Stories entertain us and help us know who we are and where we came from. And the stories we tell about ourselves, together with the stories that are told about us, can become who we are in the minds of others. If those stories are not true, they can get us into trouble. But not always.

Uncertainty about the power and effect of stories, the way stories define or don’t define our identities, is a major theme in Old School (Tobias Wolff, 2003), a novel told in a series of short stories that seem like chapters until the last chapter/story, which is only just connected to the rest of the book. It feels like Wolff calling attention to the structure of the book by taking us out of the narrative flow. Only then do you go back and realize that each chapter could stand alone, that, in addition to being about stories, the larger book is made up of a series of smaller stories.

In addition, large portions of the novel are dedicated to talking about writers and the stories they write. So on many levels this is a story about stories. It is like poems about poetry, a cliché that, in this case, does not lessen the power of the product.

The power comes from the sharp, clear prose. To call the prose sparse would be too strong. Efficient is too utilitarian. Elegant and beautiful miss the mark as well. It’s one of those moments when you just want to say it is good writing; you know it when you see it. The writing is good enough to make a story about privileged white boys in a small private boarding school on the east coast in 1960 compelling – and for me, that’s saying something. Themes that include social class, passing for white privileged, the relationship between sons and fathers, community, and integrity also help.

But even as Wolff marshals the power of stories to define ourselves, he also questions it to the point of asserting that we become who we are without realizing it. For himself, that means “the life that produces writing can’t be written about.” Not because language is incapable of capturing it, but because “it is a life carried on without knowledge even of the writer, below the mind’s business and noise.” Therefore, “no true account can be given of how or why you become a writer, nor is there a moment of which you can say: This is when I became a writer.”

For Wolff, it seems, we tell stories about this or that moment in our lives, pretending they are turning points. But in fact these are fictions and the truth of our selves is “in deep shafts where phantom messengers struggle toward us, killing one another along the way; and when a few survivors break through to our attention the are received as blandly as waiters bringing more coffee.”

Old School shows how stories help us feel alive and wise and full of energy to rise above that blandness, while simultaneously recognizing their limitations. They are crystals of knowledge we can hold and dissect and talk about. They help us remember and think about ourselves. Wolff’s ranks among the best at all these.

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