Dear Committee Members

dear committee members

Doubleday, August 2014

 

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.

This book can be purchased online at:

Dear Committee Members
by Julie Schumacher
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

The Story Hour

story hour

Harper, August 2014

 

When it comes to the workings of the human heart there are few who tell tales so consistently unexpected and with such depth as Thrity Umrigar. Her newest novel, The Story Hour, is about the lonely Lakshmi and Maggie, the psychologist assigned to work with her after she tries to kill herself. Lakshmi came from India six years ago with her arranged-marriage husband. Her life is restricted to working in his restaurant and store, her loneliness so great she decides to take her life when her favorite customer moves away. Maggie is an unconventional therapist married to an Indian man, so it is decided that she try and talk to Lakshmi, who will not speak to anyone at the hospital. A relationship that begins with trepidation on both parts soon turns into something much more than either expected.

Despite an awkward beginning, Maggie is intrigued and when Lakshmi does begin to open up she agrees to see her for free. This is the first subtle erasing of the boundary between doctor and patient and as the two women spend more time together it fades even more with each woman nurturing the other in her own way. Maggie empowers Lakshmi by teaching her ways to assert herself with her husband and to expand the skills she already has to create her own goals. Lakshmi takes care of Maggie and her husband (whom she sees as too busy and important to have to cook) by bringing them freshly prepared meals once a week. Umrigar gives both characters a wealth of back story but it is the simple Lakshmi who turns out to be anything but and commands the most attention. In her Umrigar creates a wonderfully nuanced character who begins as semi-literate but with untapped intelligence and ends with her having her own business, driving a car and flying cross country by herself. And yet, when hurt, like a child, she seeks only to inflict more hurt.

In The Story Hour Umrigar is revisiting the sensitive territory of boundaries she explored in The Space Between Us (one of my favorite novels). In that novel it was class lines but in The Story Hour it is something more intangible. Maggie is a well-educated professional who cannot begin to imagine life in Lakshmi’s world nor ever fully understand its impact on shaping who she is. Lakshmi has no experience outside of her life in India and does not understand the intricacies of social relationships, so she wants to see Maggie as her best friend. The way each is presented is the result of experiences they themselves do not even recognize in their ability to shape their actions. It is this undercurrent, generated through Umrigar’s insightful prose, which makes the resulting actions almost inconceivable. When the end begins, it is shocking and tears apart the comforting world both have come to cherish.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

The Story Hour LP
by Thrity Umrigar
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

 

Vintage: A Novel

vintage

William Morrow, pbk release August 2014

Hourglass Vintage is a charming used clothing shop in Madison, Wisconsin. It is also where three women at very different stages of life meet in Vintage, the debut novel from author Susan Gloss. Violet is the owner,  Amithi is a middle-aged Indian woman, who brings in much of her jewelry and clothes to sell, and April is a pregnant eighteen-year-old who thought she would be marrying her wealthy college boyfriend but whose family put a stop to their wedding. In one small store, these three women come together and forge a novel of humor, insight and strength.

As in any great piece of clothing, it is the details that make Vintage so enjoyable. Each chapter begins with a description of an item in the shop and its history. Gloss is no stranger to fashion and it shows in her descriptions of a Schiaparelli pant suits, a Dior evening gown, or an Hermes bag. This is the fun in Vintage but the novel’s strength lies in the fact that while it is about the distinctly feminine subject of clothes it is not centered on getting a man or keeping a man. Violet has left a drunk of a husband who spent her tuition money at a strip bar and now owns the store she’s dreamed of since high school. April forges ahead with her plans to have her baby and attend college and Amithi does not crumple over her husband’s infidelity but instead rises up in anger.

How dare he long for something he himself ruined? What selfishness to feel sorry for himself when he’d hurt her so deeply!

Each of the women has her own battles and Gloss uses these to bond them together. Violet is being threatened with the loss of her shop, Amithi is a talented seamstress and helps out with alterations while exploring options for life on her own and April is a math and computer whiz, who takes Violet’s muddled books and organizes them.  With a thoughtful approach Gloss makes each recognizable to all.

Vintage is the perfect book to get one through these dog days of heat and lethargy before summer slinks away. It is one of those happy-making novels in that while there are struggles and emotional journeys, it still wraps up as neatly and satisfyingly as finding a dress you love…in a size smaller than you normally wear…on sale. It doesn’t get much better than that.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

Vintage
by Susan Gloss
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Friendswood: A Novel

friendswood

Riverhead Books, August 2014

 

Friendswood, Texas is a good, old oil-based community. Rosemont is a small suburb built near a refinery and life is good there, until funny greasy black coils of goo start appearing in people’s yards like fat worms after a rain. Friendswood by René Steinke begins years after the fallout from the leakage of deadly chemicals in the field around which the houses of Rosemont were built. Steinke follows four characters, each on their own path yet connected, whether they worked in oil or not. For Lee, whose fifteen-year-old daughter died of a rare form of cancer, the path runs straight for the heart of the man trying to build houses on top of the polluted field, claiming that the EPA has deemed the land safe. Hal is the formerly drunken, cheating spouse who has now found Jesus and is certain that he can change his luck by being the realtor to represent the new houses for sale. Willa is a fifteen-year-old with a crush on Hal’s football playing son and a propensity to hallucinate freakish animals. Dex’s father works on the rigs and he manages the football team, having neither the interest nor the physique to be a player.

There is the inevitable struggle for each of the characters and Steinke wastes no time in defining who falls where. As Lee battles against the local developer and the apathetic EPA for relief from her grief Hal tries to stop her in an effort to ingratiate himself with the developer and earn the millions he believe Jesus wants him to have. Willa is a quiet, pretty girl, who wants to be liked by the star football player and so goes with him to another player’s house for lunch and wakes up much later that day, alone, undressed and with no memory of the afternoon. Dex is the self-sufficient boy with a crush on Willa. He wants to be a part of the popular crowd but refuses to kowtow to its leaders. He has the self-esteem that she lacks but still cannot completely break free of their high school dynamics.

While it may seem that Friendswood is cutting too broad a swath with such disparate characters and themes—toxic chemicals, corporate greed, small town politics, growing up, rape—it doesn’t read that way at all. Instead, Steinke does such a good job of developing the sense of community that the smallest encounters contribute to the seamless feel of the story. Lee, who struggles daily with the death of her daughter, sees Willa alone at a grown-ups’ party and talking to her is enough for the girl to unburden herself about her fear over what she cannot remember. The only hitch in the narrative is Willa’s hallucinations. They detract from her interior battles with shame and despair. Their meaning or purpose is never made clear Willa’s real experience diminished.

Friendswood takes carefully crafted characters and stories and brings them together in much the same way they could be in life. There is a humanity to each, as they navigate their way through to what they think is right or pay their way from what they’ve done wrong. Steinke leaves the reader with a feeling throughout that what is buried will resurface and will still create change, even if not what is expected/desired. Willa’s rape is as insidious and dangerous to the town as the toxic land, in that how they deal with each will have lasting repercussions.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

Friendswood
by Rene Steinke
Powells.com


The Elliott Bay Book Company

California: A Novel

california

Little, Brown and Company, August 2014

 

There is no prelude in Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, no introduction to life in a time of normalcy. Instead, the novel begins with Cal and Frida living in a small house in a forest somewhere in the U.S. but we don’t know where because state names are no longer used. The dystopia is in full swing as America has finally collapsed due to climate change, the oil crisis, ineffectual government, and the widening divide between the rich and everyone else. Natural disasters have wiped out established cities and populations and disease has killed enough that the rich have fled to Communities—newly established towns with their own police forces, schools, hospitals, fire departments and restrictive requirements for admittance.

Cal and Frida left a dying Los Angeles two years ago and while they are managing to eke out an existence in the forest when Frida becomes pregnant they decide to strike out for what is known as a settlement or, as Lepucki makes clear, communities for everyone without the money to live in a Community. They reach the heavily protected outer boundaries of a place known as the Land where they are welcomed in but not as strangers. It turns out Frida’s brother Micah, a terrorist fighting the government, who she thought was dead, is the leader of this settlement. They are accepted provisionally until a vote with the entire group can be held. Micah also tells them there can be no mention of Frida’s pregnancy.

Lepucki mirrors the desiccation of the environment in her characters. Cal and Frida are supposed to be in love and yet evidence of this is scarce beyond their life in the forest. Once in the Land, as they split into separate jobs, she in the kitchen baking and he with the group’s leadership, they begin forming their own alliances, gathering their own information, keeping secrets and sometimes, even distrusting each other.  Through her prose, Lepucki generates a flat affect in all of the characters that gives a monotone feeling to the novel. Everyone is guarded and secretive. No one questions anything, there is no talk of the past, all has been buried and yet, something is going on. Cal feels it brush against him for a moment

The life they’d created for themselves had been fragile and solid at once, beautiful in those ways, too: the shell of an egg, the stone of a pillar. Now things felt wrong. 

but lets it go as he becomes more involved in how the Land really works.

California shows a country shrunken down to its most elemental level: rich versus poor—which provides fodder for discussion no matter which side you’re on. Lepucki then turns it upside down, showing the tangled underpinnings. The Land’s history, Micah’s leadership, and his plans for the future are all called into question. Events culminate at the group vote and California falls into a chaos that may have been designed by Lepucki or just got out of hand. The result is a jumble of action, an ending that feels misplaced, and the realization that what is left is exactly what always was. Dystopian, indeed.

Tomorrow night, August 12th, Edan Lepucki will be appearing at the Seattle Public Library with Sherman Alexie in an event co-sponsored by The Elliott Bay Book Company.

 

This book can be purchased online at:


The Elliott Bay Book Company

 

California
by Edan Lepucki
Powells.com

The Troop: A Novel

troop

Gallery, pbk February 2014

 

Gross, gooey, and well…yucky, and those are the positive adjectives if you’re a horror fan. Nick Cutter’s The Troop goes exactly where squeamish people don’t want to go and does so in a way that if you’ve started the novel makes you unlikely to stop. When the nastiness appeared after less than thirty pages I wondered how Cutter would be able to sustain the narrative but no worries there—things just go from bad to worse.

A Boy Scout troop and their Scoutmaster Tim Riggs go to Falstaff Island for a weekend camping trip. The first night a stranger joins them on their uninhabited island. Riggs, who is also the town doctor, sees the man needs medical attention and tries to help him. Mistake number one because this man cannot be helped and he is highly contagious. His only request is for food, any food because he is starving, and his appearance makes it clear this is not a ruse but that he is indeed wasting away. When he smashes the short wave radio (the only form of communication on the island) Tim sedates him. The following events are not unpredictable but suffice it to say, in short order Riggs and the stranger are dead.

On their own after Riggs’s death, the boys try and find ways to get off the island but as military ships circle the water they realize that help is not likely to be on the way. Now Cutter shifts from gruesome physical horror to the more insidious mental and emotional drama. With no supervision, each boy begins to give into his own nature ala Lord of the Flies. Their machinations, as they team up, fight, disperse, and try and go it alone, all while avoiding contact with what seems to be a highly contagious entity, provide the psychological terror to balance out the novel.

It came down to that flexibility of a person’s mind. An ability to withstand horrors and snap back, like a fresh elastic band. A flinty mind shattered…A grown-up’s mind—even one belonging to a decent man like Scoutmaster Tim—lacked that elasticity. The world had been robbed of all its mysteries, and with those mysteries went the horror.

Amongst all this, Cutter layers in trial excerpts and interviews with a scientist and an Army Admiral, giving some indication of how The Troop is going to play out. Still, even as things fall apart (literally) and the contagion seems to increase its ability to infiltrate humans, the story remains fast paced and bloody. Perfect reading for a summer camping trip.

This book can be purchased online at:

The Troop
by Nick Cutter
Powells.com

The Girls of Atomic City

girls of atomic city

Touchstone, pbk March 2014

 

Yesterday was the 69th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Japan by the United States. Now threats of atomic war loom and fade whenever one country gets mad at another. I wondered about the path we took to making the bomb and this led me to Denise Kiernan’s book The Girls of Atomic City: The untold story of the women who helped win World War II, a highly detailed and researched look at one of the plants responsible for preparing the bomb and largely staffed by women.

In the beginning of 1942 there were over 80,000 acres of land in eastern Tennessee with nothing but small towns and farms sitting on them. By the end of that year, 60,000 of those acres had been cheaply bought or outright taken from its residents, displacing over 3,000 people. A fence went up around the land and there were security checkpoints keeping virtually everyone out. It was the last time until August 6, 1945 when the residents of nearby towns or anyone in the United States would know what was happening in what is now known as Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

By 1943 the land had huge manufacturing and testing plants, housing and almost everything needed for what would ultimately be a population of 75,000 people. Some of these came from other parts of Tennessee while others came from as far away as the Midwest and Northeast. None of them had any idea of the work they were going to do, just that it would pay well. The ads they’d answered listed only a skill and a pay rate. If they asked, they were told they were headed somewhere in the south but nothing more. Most of these people were young women out of high school, who had never worked anywhere other than a family farm but there were also more experienced women, culled from office jobs, hospitals and research labs in the East. They converged on the muddy, half built mass of what was now known as Clinton Engineer Works and began doing jobs described by one woman as:

Colleen’s assignment was explained in the usual fashion: a lot of information about how to do what you were doing, but precious little about what you were doing.

Secrecy was so paramount that at no time whatsoever could your work be discussed—not even among husbands and wives. Informants were recruited from among workers and the smallest slip resulted in being removed from the site. Problems arose early on because no one knew what they were working on and so didn’t know what could be talked about and what couldn’t. This meant as the population grew and work progressed, the only way for people to connect was to ask, “Where are you from?”—never “What do you do?”

The Girls of Atomic City follows nine women and their lives at CEW. They range from a nurse to a chemist to a cleaning woman. Their daily lives are chronicled in chapters broken up with memos and text about the rest of “The Project”. Despite the good pay, which many still needed at the tail end of the Depression, these were not cushy jobs or an easy life. Living arrangements were sparse and crowded as the demand for workers continued to grow. Conveniences we take for granted were limited—small or no kitchens, all laundry had to be sent to a central location and would be returned to you, well, when it was. The workers could leave CEW but sojourns into town were met with people who were often hostile, after years of  “everything went in, but nothing comes out” and having no idea why. Instead, they created life where they were with dance halls, churches, and other group activities and gathering places.

Kiernan mimics the process of establishing and building the Clinton Engineer Works by working from the outside in and keeping the reader as much in the dark about specifics as the women themselves were. For the majority of the book, the word atomic bomb is not used nor is uranium (which is what was being processed at CEW)—everything is referred to in code, just as it was then. Kiernan’s structure and prose enhances the feeling of uncertainty and unquestioning acceptance the workers were forced to adopt.

It is impossible to relate even the highlights from The Girls in one review but Kiernan covers everything from the amazing and powerful achievements of women in the field of nuclear physics (which have largely been ignored) to the woman who swept the floors in one of the plants but was not allowed to live with her husband because they were black. Using a potent mix of personal and professional details she brings these varied women to life and shares their stories in creating the weapon that ended the war but did so with a destructive force greater than any ever imagined.

girls of atomic city

 

This book can be purchased online at:


The Elliott Bay Book Company

The Home Place

home place

William Morrow/HarperCollins, July 2014

 

Alma Terrebonne is doing well as a corporate lawyer in Seattle until she gets the call that her younger sister Vicky is dead. Suddenly, she has to walk away from one of the biggest deals of her career and head back to Montana, the place where her family has lived for generations. The Home Place is both the title of Carrie La Seur’s debut novel and what the Terrebonne family calls their homestead in the wilderness outside Billings. Alma is filled with misgivings as she has had no contact with her sister for years due to her hard partying ways. Instead of sadness she feels only the dread of all the people that will reach and grab at her, at the mess likely left behind, and how difficult it will be to clean it up and get out.

This is what she ran from, what ultimately took Vicky. If she were ever to come back to stay, there would be things she’d have to know—to acknowledge—that are beyond her capacity to survive.

Once she’s back in Billings Alma is quickly confronted with how far her sister’s life had sunk. She’s died in somewhat mysterious circumstances, has left behind an eleven-year-old daughter and turned the family ranch over to a meth manufacturer.  With the help of the local police Alma scares off the drug dealer but still has to find a way to bring her fractured family together, solve her sister’s death, and fight off a coal mining company representative who wants the mineral rights to their land. Into this overload of stress, she encounters her high school boyfriend—who she left with no word when she went off to college.

La Seur does a beautiful job evoking the brittle winter grandeur of Montana but the events in The Home Place occur in under a week meaning a lot of territory needs to be covered in a short amount of time. As the opening situation presents itself and the dichotomy between the lives of Alma and Vicky is so clear it seems there will have to be an emotional reckoning on Alma’s part and yet, that moment doesn’t arrive. She realizes that perhaps her Seattle life is not as fulfilling as she thought it was and that she left a lot unsaid when she ran from Billings but the result of these realizations is without emotional depth. Ultimately, Vicky’s death provides greater surprises than Alma’s life.



I received a copy of this book compliments of TLC Book Tours. To see what other book bloggers are saying about The Home Place you can visit here to see the rest of the tour.

TLC logo

 

 

In the Blood: A Novel

in the blood

Simon & Schuster, pbk release July 2014

 

We telegraph our inner lives with what we choose to eat, how we eat it, what we wear, how we carry ourselves, the words we use and don’t use. We tell about ourselves in a million small and large ways. And most people don’t even notice, because they’re so busy telling about themselveslistening to the symphony of their own inner lives. But the psychopath doesn’t have an inner life—no attachments, no feelings, no self-doubt, no regrets. Psychopaths just have their own desires, and a single-minded focus to achieve those desires—whatever they happen to be.  

Oftentimes when a book is hyped a great deal it can have the opposite effect on readers. This is especially true with thrillers. If I’m told (multiple times) that “you’ll never see it coming” or “you’ll never figure it out” I’m likely to read the book as if it were the text on how to crack the Powerball lottery code. I WILL figure it out. Or so I thought until I read In the Blood: A Novel, the newest novel from Lisa Unger. It’s the story of awkward and androgynous Lana whose personal life, coupled with her personality, has made the years leading up to college traumatic. Her father is on death row for murdering her mother, an act he coerced the young Lana into helping him hide. This plus Lana’s odd quirks, genius level IQ and lack of emotional affect have contributed to her desire for isolation. Despite a brilliant mind she chooses a small quiet college in upstate New York and decides to study child psychology with a focus on troubled children, largely because she wonders if she “…could keep someone from doing something horrible?

As she heads into her final semester Lana takes a job as an afternoon sitter for an eleven-year-old boy named Lucas. During her interview with the boy’s mother she learns that the child is not all that different from the way she was as a child: manipulative, brilliant, possessive, and sometimes violent. He attends a day school designed to help troubled children and although he is old enough to stay alone after school his mother is afraid of the trouble he might get into. Upon meeting Lucas, Lana realizes that he is indeed much as she was, until the right doctors and medication were able to help balance her mind.

As Lana works with Lucas she is also grappling with her sexuality and her friendship with one of her roommates. When that roommate goes missing and Lucas invites Lana to a treasure hunt that echoes her own past to an eerie degree, she begins to find herself out-maneuvered and boxed in at the same time. Her mental equilibrium is stretched even further when her psychiatrist lets her know that her father is trying to contact her from death row. With each of these elements Unger ratchets up the suspense, taking the novel and Lana’s nerves to the breaking point.

 As the novel progresses, Unger parses clues in a way so devious it allows the reader to think they’ve got everything figured out but this is unlikely. Instead, her talent allows some light to get through the intricate plot while leaving plenty of darkness in the final chapters. In the Blood is a twisty tale where nothing is as it seems (or is it?) and yet the title says it all. Suffice it to say…I was surprised.

 

This book can be purchased online at:

In the Blood
by Lisa Unger
Powells.com

 

The Elliott Bay Book Company

July Reading Recap

Yes, it’s August first and this is a July reading recap but I like to make sure the month is well and truly over before I post something called a “recap”. That’s just me. July was an interesting month. Despite hitting a patch of reading blahs when I couldn’t find anything I wanted to read on my shelves (pretty sure that’s one of the signs of the Apocalypse) I ended up reading seventeen books. A lot of them I reviewed but here is a recap of the ones I didn’t write about: the good, the bad, and the indifferent.

july reading recap

The Yonahlosse Riding Camp for Girls: posh riding camp for wealthy girls with “troubles”. Thea is sent by her family for reasons that don’t become clear until 3/4 of the way through the novel. Somewhat intriguing but Thea is a tough nut to crack.

 When the World was Young: a little girl, World War I, a love of ants, and plot aplenty but just did not come together.

Landline: Rainbow Rowell is the author of two young adult novels that have earned her fanatical followers. Now she is out with her first adult novel, Landline, the story of a woman whose marriage seems to be falling apart over the span of the week before Christmas. Georgie McCool is a successful television show writer who is informed that her big career break means working through Christmas—even though her husband has already planned a long overdue vacation to visit his family. She opts not to go but moves into her mother’s house while her family is out of town.

I was so anxious to read a Rainbow Rowell book and that may be part of the problem—overhype in my mind. I simply could not get into Landline. The premise of Georgie being able to reconnect with her husband through an old landline phone in her mother’s house was at best confusing and at worst annoying. The fact that she moved into her mother’s house after Neal and the girls left seemed far-fetched. None of the pieces added up and I was unable to muster any emotion for the story. Instead, I felt as if I was reading a novel about a grown-up relationship as imagined by a teenager.

The Antiquarian: Superficially, reminiscent of Carlos Zafon’s trilogy The Cemetery for Forgotten Books in that the writing is dark and gothic but with none of Zafon’s poetic prose.

Me Before You: This story about a vibrant active man in his thirties who becomes a quadriplegic after an accident is a tear jerker but in the best possible way. Author JoJo Moyes gives the reader a story that combines humor with pathos in such perfect proportion that by the time the heavy drama hits you have been reeled in without feeling manipulated. I cried. You’ll cry.

Eleanor and Park: This is Rainbow Rowell writing young adult fiction and it works. Two misfits, one shared bus seat, and a story that touches while staying painfully real. No fairy dust and unicorns here. This is age appropriate for teens but has the chops to keep adults reading.

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