Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

We moved into our new house this week but it is still unfinished so my mental ability to write new reviews is shot. Until I can get back to the important things in life (and all this construction people GET OUT of my house) I am re-recommending, Dear Committee Members, one of my favorite books of 2014. It just came out in paperback and is witty and sharp. Deliciously humorous  reading for dealing with bad weather or living in the basement of your house with no kitchen.

 

dear committee members

Doubleday, paperback June 2015

 

If every member of the human race evinced a fondness for literature and even a moderate level of dexterity with the written word, I would be a happier, if not more well-adjusted, man.

Jay Fitger is an underpaid, tortured and tenured English professor at Payne University. His professional life at this B-level college has largely devolved into writing letters of recommendation (LOR) for everyone from his students to a stranger who collared him outside the men’s room the day before Thanksgiving, who was never even a student of his but lay down on his office floor until he wrote said letter. All this and more is found in Julie Schumacher’s hilarious novel, Dear Committee Members. Solely through letters to everyone from department heads to the owner of Flanders Nut House, a portrait of Fitger emerges—a very complete portrait, as he includes personal details in many of his letters—especially those written to his department chair and other faculty members at Payne as he begs them for positions within their departments for students, teaching assistants, and even graduates.

Schumacher is herself a professor of English at a university and the weary, passive-aggressive tone of Fitger as he wheedles and mocks can only be the result of someone who knows the system too well. Her prose is spot-on for someone who spends their life with words and still believes in their ability to effect change. Here Fitger is trying to get a mentorship position in a different department for another person who is a stranger to him:

…I have skimmed her CV and her letter-of-interest, both of which express her theater of the absurd language about pedagogy and the euphoria of learning. Suffering creature! By all means yes, yes! I endorse her bid for the mentorship: may the bump in salary allow her to avoid scurvy by adding fruit to her diet once a week. 

Other tidbits that come to life in Fitger’s epistolary gems are his divorce from the wife he still loves and the inadvertent acknowledgment of that love to his current girlfriend in a reply-all email. All of these combined make it clear life is not working out quite as he imagined and he’s no longer willing to pretend it is.

Dear Committee Members succeeds as a wry, highly intelligent parody of academia but Fitger is not only a caricature of a beleaguered professor churning out letters for B and even C level students. He has real convictions and heartfelt beliefs about some of these people, namely a student and advisee, Darren Browles. Darren is working on a novel but no longer has the money to attend school. Fitger writes letters first to residency programs, then MFA programs, his agent, and finally to an RV park looking for a manager. None of these letters go anywhere and we feel Fitger’s very real despair over the young man’s situation. It creates a poignancy that makes Dear Committee Members more than just a sly, sulky, funny look at what is happening to the arts in colleges today. Instead, by the end of the novel Fitger shows us the reality behind the humor.

 

I Saw a Man: A Novel

i saw a man

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, June 9, 2015

 

Michael knew Caroline’s job was dangerous when he married her. As a foreign correspondent her field of interest was the Middle East and while he was also a writer his inspiration came from stillness and hers from motion. They both told the stories of people

But where Michael always retreated to his desk to tell his stories Caroline had simply moved on to the next. For her their telling was a need, a hunger. Her belief in the truth being told was almost fanatical, whatever the outcome of a story’s exposure. 

Given her penchant for being in the midst of dangerous events it was never far from Michael’s mind that he could lose her at any time. That it would be to an American drone strike is beyond his comprehension. I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers follows not only Michael after Caroline’s death but also Daniel McCullen, the Air Force pilot who guided the Predator drone with the missile that killed her.

Michael moves to a small flat near London to try and rebuild his life and is befriended by the family next door. Their young daughters and the normalcy of their lives start providing him relief from his loneliness. At the same time thousands of miles away, the opposite is true for Daniel who is haunted by his role in killing Caroline. Despite having been a bomber pilot with numerous tours of duty under his belt this new kind of warfare is his undoing. Where once a pilot would drop bombs and never see the human damage, satellites mean that Daniel sees in graphic detail the results of these missiles—much in the way soldiers on the ground see the result of their bullets. In an effort to work through his guilt, he decides to write to Michael and ask his forgiveness.

He was tired of being unseen. Of being dislocated from his actions. Of witnessing but never being witnessed. He wanted to own his life, and he knew that meant owning all of it.

In this way, Sheers uses I Saw a Man to venture into the controversial territory of drone warfare. We see not only the grief and shattered lives left behind by those killed but also the psychological burden carried by the killers. That he does so on such a personal level, without drawing moral conclusions, means the pain strikes that much harder.

The stories of Michael and Daniel are enough to make I Saw a Man compelling reading but Sheers adds another significant plot twist and as much as I love twisty plots this one strains the novel’s credibility. It plays into the novel’s themes of accidental death, responsibility and forgiveness but in a sensationalistic and drawn out way that pulls attention away from the very real issues at hand. Sheers covers so much ground with his thoughtful prose that this additional drama, the ensuing mystery and the confusion it provokes diminishes the novel’s power and makes for a lackluster ending.

Girl at War: A Novel

girl at war

Random House, May 2015

 

Ana is from Croatia but now lives in America and attends college in New York. Despite having been in the U.S for a decade she suddenly finds herself overcome by memories of her life in Croatia in 1991—the beginning of the Yugoslavian civil war. These memories increase in intensity until she can no longer sleep at night. In desperation, she decides to go back to Croatia to try and put to rest her ten-year-old self and what she witnessed. This is Girl at War, the debut novel of Sara Nović.

Girl at War moves in four parts between past and present, and in each Ana is struggling to either reconcile the war herself or try and explain it to the people around her. When she first arrives in America there is an unwillingness of the adults around her to acknowledge the war and so she quickly learns to downplay her experiences. At the same time she is haunted by them and by the people she left behind. This creates a line of emotional demarcation within Ana but it is not clearly defined in that despite an opening of extreme intensity the feeling is lost as the novel progresses. It may be that this splitting of the narrative between past and present—Ana’s young life in Croatia and the rest of her life in the safety of America—works against the novel and keeps the full impact of wartime Croatia from reaching the reader.

Where Nović excels in Girl at War is in conveying the profound confusion of this war. There is the obvious ignorance of most Americans (of which I am guilty, having no knowledge of the war beyond as a footnote to the Clinton presidency) but the novel is imbued throughout with the ambiguity and resulting fear felt by all of the characters in the region. Even before the war, when Ana’s family travels to Slovenia, she finds the trip difficult because

The difference between Croatian and Slovenian was exasperatingly mild, the storefronts and street signs filled with words that looked familiar but not quite right, rendering comprehension just out of reach.

Imagine then how muddied the waters become, when religious differences are layered in and all is filtered through a young girl’s mind and a young woman’s memory. What was clear and what hit home were Ana’s thoughts about a childhood friend when she sees him again as an adult.

“I had wanted him to be outraged, too, but I knew in the end the guilt of one side did not prove the innocence of the other.”

 

Have you read Girl at War already? If so, stop by The Socratic Salon this Thursday, June 25th and share your thoughts with us. No holds barred!

It’s Monday, June 22nd: What are You Reading?

what are you reading

 

This is it, my twinkly reading stars, the last week before we move into our house. Whether it will be finished or not remains to be seen so you can just imagine all the noise inside my head as I try and remember everything that needs to happen in the next week. I have to pack up a rental house, make decisions about the remodel, and figure out where to put everything in a house that isn’t finished.  I’m still trying to find time for books but it’s a little tough so tell me: what are YOU reading?

If I can find the time here are the books I’m using for escape this week:

 

what are you reading

 

The Star Side of Bird Hill is a debut novel, which always piques my interest. While the cover is not my favorite the story of two sisters moving from Brooklyn to Barbados and trying to navigate life with their grandmother sounds like it might be just right. Generational and cultural conflict always makes for interesting reading.

 






what are you reading

 

Candace Bushnell is back (she’s the author of Sex and the City in case you forgot) with Killing Monica. By and large I like everything she writes, mostly because she doesn’t stray too far from a formula that works- frothy satire that exploits the worst of American excess and pop culture. If I can laugh and roll my eyes at the same time it’s a win-win.

That’s it for me, what about you? Are you reading this week or enjoying your summer with something other than a book? Please, I need to know that someone is doing something fun!

In the Unlikely Event

in the unlikely event

Knopf, June 2, 2015

 

As a young girl growing up in the 1970s there were few reading experiences more ubiquitous than discovering that author Judy Blume understood you. That she seemed, in fact, to be a teenage girl herself who was reaching off the page to make you feel less alone. I don’t know many women who did not read and relate to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Blume has gone on to a successful career writing both YA and adult fiction but I had not followed her work so was excited to see that she had a new novel coming out. Set in the 1950s and based on very real and unusual events, In the Unlikely Event is about three planes that crash in Elizabeth, New Jersey in less than two months and the effect of those crashes on the city.

In short order, Blume assembles a large and varied cast with a teenage girl named Miri at its center. She lives alone with her mother in Elizabeth. While we follow Miri throughout the novel Blume cycles through numerous other characters in In the Unlikely Event with mixed results. The passengers on the planes and the quick glimpses of their lives and their thoughts provide emotional immediacy but there the contact ends. Instead, a growing stream of ancillary characters appears and exits with very little definition. Blume excels at recapturing the details of the 1950s with the right products, the fear of Communism, aliens, and government conspiracies—the superficialities of society at that time—but the cast of characters grows at a pace that means few hold the stage for more than part of a chapter or two. With so many disparate stories In the Unlikely Event is left feeling like a news article—everything is recounted with no sense of emotion or connection.

As someone who related to Blume’s work so strongly, the dissonance between the novels I loved and In the Unlikely Event was difficult to understand until I realized that essentially, the novel is Miri’s story and it read that way, as if it were written for a young adult audience with very little interest or understanding of adult lives. This could have worked if the novel was written from Miri’s perspective but in the third person omniscient the impact was scattered and the grown-ups came off as confusing, cardboard characters. Sadly, the Judy Blume I loved as a young girl did not engage me as an adult. Instead, I was left disappointed.

Were you a Judy Blume fan when you were young? If so, what was your favorite book?

The Household Spirit

Pantheon Books, June 9, 2015

Pantheon Books, June 9, 2015

In The Household Spirit, on a rural road in upstate New York, there sit two identical houses inhabited by two people who are anything but identical. Howie Jeffries is fifty-years old and has lived alone in his house since he and his wife divorced twenty years ago. He is a man with a huge heart wrapped in a persona of extreme shyness and an exterior that is so dour when he does smile it makes small children cry. He is not an angry man, just one who finds the outside world perplexing.

He was not, he knew, an unhappy man…You treat folks like you expect to be treated back. Howie had never found a good or bad reason to believe in God and believed only that things were getting too noisy and that most people were insane.

Emily Phane is a young woman mysterious in her dysfunction. Yes, she was raised by her grandfather with little contact with children her own age but it is a loving relationship. She has no friends or social life, no one but her grandfather so she is misaligned with the rest of the world and takes refuge in plants. It is only when she goes to college in Boston that she starts to create a life of her own but this is cut short when her grandfather becomes ill and she returns home.

Just as you used to be able to play vinyl records at a slower speed so The Household Spirit moves in a dreamy underwater way as author Tod Wodicka navigates the odd and bizarre lives of Emily and Howie. Howie, trapped in pathological shyness and Emily, in a world of night terrors that leaves her unwilling to fall asleep. They exist in these separate worlds for decades despite being next-door neighbors until Emily’s grandfather dies and she tips over the line from eccentric to disturbed, entombing herself in their house by digging up plants from the garden and bringing them inside. When this craziness leaves her temporarily without a house she moves in with Howie where they exist in a world of their own making, like soldiers in the same war. No romance, little physical contact of any kind, just comrades battling demons.

Wodicka amplifies the eccentricities of these characters with a style that is a gentle stream of consciousness. Sentences pour out as they might be found lying inside either Emily or Howie’s head as opposed to standing and screaming. Not for Wodicka are the staccato jabs and riffs found in other stream of consciousness works. Instead, sentences shift, ebb and flow, evoking the confusion and sadness within, not anger or frustration. This makes for beautiful gentle reading but as Howie and Emily begin to sink under the morass of their neuroses, insecurities, and fears so does The Household Spirit. The two feed off each other and at a certain point it feels as if they will drown, each clutching the other’s neck but instead, with his quietly expressive prose Wodicka rescues them and the novel regains its buoyancy. For readers who need a fast pace The Household Spirit may not work so well but for those who are ready to slow down and slip into the joy of quirky characters who can’t get out of their own way to happiness there is much to recognize and to love about this tender novel.

China Rich Girlfriend

china rich

Doubleday, June 16, 2015

 

As summer appears in all its sweltering glory China Rich Girlfriend is the sumptuous equivalent of a decadent ice cream in book format. The novel is Kevin Kwan’s follow-up to his biting and over-the-top debut Crazy Rich Asians about people with more money than brains and taste. In China Rich Girlfriend, much of the original cast is back, along with some new stereotypes of the uber-wealthy including the porn star trying to reinvent into herself into a society lady and the heir to the money throne who buys cars the way the rest of us buy ice cream (OK, the way I buy ice cream). Even in this rarified atmosphere Kwan is quick to draw lines between the blue bloods of Hong Kong and the oh-so-gauche Mainlanders, who while they may have the money do not have a pedigree and try far too hard to show off their wealth.

There are flaws in China Rich Girlfriend if you’re compelled to find them. Certain aspects of the plot figure prominently in the beginning and then disappear only to reappear at the end with nothing in between. But honestly, if you’re reading Kwan as literary fiction you’re in the wrong aisle. If what you want is well-paced drama perfectly wrapped up in designer names even the merely rich don’t know then China Rich Girlfriend is the only place to shop. Through Kwan you’ll read about people who are ready and able to shell out $10 million dollars in bribes to cover up their scandals, who wear jewels so massive they appear fake, and who will spend millions on a car but will make their own ramen noodles in their hotel room because the prices at the local Chinese restaurant are too expensive. As one bystander puts it:

“Oooo, I can’t wait to meet all these women I’ve been hearing so much about—it’s gonna be like an issue of Vanity Fair magazine come to life!” 

Yes, indeed. And just like in Vanity Fair the exuberant frivolity of China Rich Girlfriend is infectious in its absurdity. Kwan’s characters are no more real than those found in     science fiction but who wants real when you can experience foolish people with nonsensical levels of wealth spending gobs of money on caviar spoons used by Tsar Nicholas. Settle in, pretend your iced tea is Krug, and be prepared to be entertained and delighted. The real world is highly overrated, dahling.

china rich girlfriend

p.s. If you think the title is merely a coy made-up term just google it and you’ll see that Forbes publishes a list of China Rich. There is such a group of people, which is an odd concept to reconcile with Communism and makes me wonder if Mao Tse Tung can be seen rolling over in his crystal display coffin. How can you get rich in a Communist country? Apparently, you can and to the tune of the GDP of many nations combined. It may be disturbing for those of us who will never know regular rich but by pillorying China Rich in knife sharp prose Kwan eases our pain a bit with humor.

Americanah

americanah

Knopf, 2013

 

Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love when they are teenagers in Lagos, Nigeria. As the time comes for college and moving on they know that they have no wish to stay in Nigeria. Ifemelu gets into a school in the United States and Obinze goes to London. While this may sound straightforward it is anything but in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new novel, Americanah. Instead, Ifemelu and Obinze struggle against the red tape and racism that surround them in both countries. Although she has a visa, Ifemelu is restricted to working student jobs at her campus which does not provide enough to live on and Obinze is in the even more precarious position of outstaying a temporary visa in Great Britain and can only find cash jobs while he lives in fear of being deported. Their relationship shreds and finally disintegrates under the pressure of their situations and their choices and they lose touch as they try to make new lives in these foreign worlds.

By looking at America through the eyes of a non-American black woman, Adichie takes what the reader knows, the everyday, and makes it as foreign as it is to Ifemelu. Nothing is as expected because her experiences are unknown to the majority of us. She finds that her body, her hair, her speech, her mannerisms, her clothes, virtually everything about her is wrong and for a time she tries to change herself to fit in but ultimately decides to own who she is. One of the ways she comes to this mindset is by starting her own anonymous blog, called Raceteenth, where she writes about life in the U.S. as a non-American Black.

Adichie’s piercing eye is not simply cast at white Americans. It is clear throughout the book that this is a writer who has been paying attention for a very long time and is graced with the talent to be able to translate what she sees into words that reach those who have never had to see it or deal with it. Of other Nigerian expatriates she says

Ifemelu imagined the writers, Nigerians in bleak houses in America, their lives deadened by work, nursing their careful savings throughout the year so that they could visit home in December for a week, when they would arrive bearing suitcases of shoes and clothes and cheap watches, and see, in the eyes of their relatives, brightly burnished images of themselves. Afterwards they would return to America to fight on the Internet over their mythologies of home, because home was now a blurred place between here and there, and at least online they could ignore the awareness of how inconsequential they had become. 

Americanah does an admirable job educating the reader about racism in America but in doing so blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. Ifemelu’s blog posts are thought provoking and challenging

Or maybe it’s just time to scrap the word “racist.” Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium, and acute.

but as they increase in number they begin to feel like a lecture and soon overtake the plot. Americanah becomes less about the story between Ifemelu and Obinze and more about racism. Ifemelu’s story is rife with it and its impact on her makes for powerful reading but the novel falters under the academic weight of her blog posts. In trying to bring together two narrative forms both are weakened and Americanah loses its voice.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

miniaturist

Ecco, paperback release June 2, 2015

Set in 1686 The Miniaturist by debut author Jessie Burton is the spellbinding story of an eighteen-year-old girl married off to an older merchant who lives in Amsterdam. She arrives on his doorstep with no idea of what marriage entails or the fact that she has been procured to enhance his reputation, for her family is poor but with a pedigree. Little does she know that her husband is not what he seems and will never be a real husband to her. He is not even there to greet her, leaving her on her own to meet his sister, Marin, and their household servants, Cornelia and Otto. So begins, Petronella’s introduction to her new life. When Johannes does finally appear he is pleased but distant and his only acknowledgement of her as his wife is the gift of a marvelous miniature of their house, complete down to the identical wallpaper and drapes. It lacks only furniture and, in finding a craftsman to carve replicas for her, Nella embarks on a strange and complicated journey that changes her life.

The Miniaturist follows Nella’s lonely days in trying to adapt to a household devoid of light and her husband’s presence. She manages to find a carver in the trade paper and engages his services sight unseen. When she receives the items she ordered not only are they exact and exquisite renderings of the belongings in the house, they also include the people and cryptic notes. Given that this person has never been in the house or met any of them Nella’s interest is piqued. When she goes to the address listed no one answers the door but she learns it is a woman living there.  Nella has seen a woman following her but has never managed to speak to her. When the carvings start to prophecy what is happening in the house, Nella believes she must talk to this mysterious carver, must understand what is this person’s place in her life. How can she know what will happen to them before it does?

The story presented seems like Nella’s, but it isn’t Nella’s to tell. She spins my life, she thinks, and I cannot see the consequences. 

Much like the house that is the centerpiece of this story The Miniaturist is a magical, intricate marvel of perfection. Burton channels Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca with the depiction of a young, naïve girl thrust into a dark and isolated atmosphere populated with secrets, but goes far beyond Rebecca’s reach with luxurious prose that immerses the reader in the cold, damp of Amsterdam, the varied textures, colors and smells of Johannes’ warehouse, the superficial trappings of wealth and the darkness that fills her husband’s richly appointed house.  Nella tries to make friends with her new family but Marin’s disdain and secret life are impenetrable. Even when she does finally respond in kind with her own cutting words it doesn’t make her feel better.

Seeing her like this should make me feel powerful, Nella thinks as Marin’s sobs flood her ears—yet even now she eludes me. Like her idea of love, Marin is best witnessed in the chase—for caught like this, she is even more ungraspable. 

The secrets that multiply, the ever shifting shadows of change, are what make The Miniaturist a book that enchants from beginning to end. This is a story for a reader to love, the kind that brings on sadness when it ends because we can’t bear to leave the characters and want only to know what happens next. Burton heightens this feeling in the novel in that even after the last sentence there are still mysteries unsolved.

It’s Monday, June 8th: What are You Reading?

what are you reading

Another Monday and I’m asking again: what are you reading? Anything really good? Summer-y? I’m trying to keep up with my reading but my favorite time to read (at night in bed) isn’t working out well these days because I fall asleep so quickly. I try and do it during the day but we’re now in the midst of preparing to move out of our rental house so everywhere I look is something that needs to be packed, shredded, organized or thrown away, which is not conducive to focusing on a book. My new mantra is “July 1st. July 1st. July 1st.” For better or worse that is when we’ll be in our new house and I can start unpack my life.

Thankfully, there are some exciting books to read this week!

what are you reading

I loved Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians so was really excited to see he has a new novel out. I started it last night and am already in love. Sigh. There is nothing like sharp satire on the over-the-top lives of the uber-rich to make me laugh.

Matthew Quick wrote Silver Linings Playbook which I did not read but I did like the movie so in a reverse move I’m going to read a book based on the movie of the author’s previous work. Convoluted reasoning but it works for me.

I Saw a Man is my wildcard pick for the week. No idea about it and no recommendations from anyone I know. I’m getting all rebellious so we’ll see how it goes.

Dish the dirt, readers! Are you in the midst of a great book or finding the beginning of summer too busy for reading? Do you have a favorite time and place to read?

 

 

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