Dear Committee Members

By Julie Schumacher

(Doubleday, $22.95, 192 pages)

Who is this author?

Julie Schumacher is a graduate of two fine schools: Oberlin College and Cornell University., The Body Is Water, her 1995 debut novel, and was an ALA Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Minnesota Book Award. Schumacher has also published a story collection and five books for younger readers. She is a faculty member in the Creative Writing Program and the Department of English at the University of Minnesota.

What is this book about?                                             

Academia. Boredom. Despair. The unquenchable hope that maybe for once you can make a difference, a good one, in someone’s life. The crushing realization that nope, you probably cannot. Oh, and the fine art of passive-aggressiveness. Told entirely in the form of recommendation letters by a professor of creative writing at a not-so-hot Midwestern college on behalf of students and colleagues seeking gainful employment. Professor Jason Fitger will likely never write the mythical Great American Novel, but Julie Schumacher has constructed a pretty darn funny – and wise – one from the endless letters Fitger sends out.  

Why you’ll like it:                 

Anyone who has ever written a recommendation (or has begged a colleague for one) will appreciate how well Schumacher replicates the style of these peculiar letters, which often seem to be written in code. It sounds gimmicky to create an entire novel and deftly delineate a character solely from such epistles, but Schumacher makes it work, and the book is both howlingly funny and not a little sad. It’s no surprise that many reviewers wrote their appreciations in the form of letters to a committee, but the book does it better.

What others are saying:                                

Publishers Weekly says: “Professor Jason Fitger, the hero of this engaging epistolary novel from Schumacher is concerned about Darren Browles, a student of his currently at work on a novel. Fitger, who teaches creative writing at fictional Payne University, believes this book, when completed, will prove Browles to be a prodigy. Despite Fitger’s near-ecstatic praise of the would-be novelist, both for writing positions and for any job available, no one seems interested in hiring Browles, not even the less-than-enterprising college radio station. In addition to this pet project, Fitger commits himself to writing recommendations for anyone that asks. However, he agrees to do so only on the condition of being completely frank, leading him to address the personal lives of his colleagues and students inappropriately. Additionally, Fitger delves into his own life with uncomfortable honesty, regardless of which person he’s writing to, usually concerning the marriage-ending novel he wrote about his extramarital affairs and his distress over being a failed novelist. His letters become progressively more abrasive, to the point of insult. A creative writing professor herself, Schumacher crafts a suitably verbose but sympathetic voice for Fitger, a man who exudes both humor and heart.”

Says Slate: “A funny and lacerating novel of academia written in the form of letters of recommendation… Dear Committee Members isn’t really an academic novel, or even an academic satire. It’s a sincere exploration of the depths and breadths of human selfishness, and the contemporary American academy is simply the backdrop… So in the end, it is exactly Fitger’s selfishness that destructs, rather than his life—and although his semi-redemption may not redeem the rank carcass of academic culture that continues to fester around him, it’s more than enough to recommend this mischievous novel.

“. . . A smart-as-hell, fun-as-heck novel composed entirely of recommendation letters… Beyond the moribund state of academia, Schumacher touches on more universal themes about growing old and facing failure: not necessarily the dramatic failure of a batter striking out with two on and two out in the  bottom of the ninth, but the quieter failure that accrues over time, until we are finally forced to admit that we are not who we wanted to become,” says Newsweek.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “. . . Over the course of 100 letters, we learn that waste water is leaking into Fitger’s office from the construction of a glorious new economics center above the English department; that he’s engaged in a losing battle of office politics with the administration; that he has a cordial but cold relationship with his ex-wife over in the law school; and that he’s generally kind to most of his students, even the ones who are moving on from college to the local liquor store. His writing, meanwhile, is tremendously florid and mostly cynical: “Mr. Duffy Napp has just transmitted a nine-word email asking that I immediately send a letter of reference to your firm on his behalf; his request has summoned from the basement of my heart a star-spangled constellation of joy, so eager am I to see Mr. Napp well established at Maladin IT.” Most of all, we learn that the failed novelist still has hope for the future—if not for himself, then for one of his students, Darren Browles, whom he’s mentoring through a difficult first novel. It’s an unusual form for comedy, but it works.Truth is stranger than fiction in this acid satire of the academic doldrums.”

“For that reason, I entreat you, now that you’ve reviewed my précis, to read Ms. Schumacher’s book. It is easily consumed in small pieces, like a tray of sweets and savories. It is ideal for passing the time between innings of a baseball game, waiting for a long red light to change, or sitting in a warm bath. As for Jason Fitger, I implore you to take a leap of faith and offer him admission to your next available residency. The worlds of business and academia will be poorer for lack of his letters, but perhaps, with your support, he can find a way to channel his energy and inventiveness into a new novel—one that will hopefully be as entertaining and as sharply written as Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members,” recommends Jon Michaud in The New Yorker.

When is it available?

I recommend that you check the new book shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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