There is something about rarefied atmospheres that appeal to me. It's what I love about books set in convents and boarding schools, and occasionally I find myself drawn to a book set in the Ivory Tower. I enjoyed Allegra Goodman's Intuition (though I agree with Kris's criticism that the science is not good science); I was very bothered by Francine Prose's Blue Angel.
When I read a blurb for Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher, two things caught my eye: epistolary novel, and "droll and inventive." A comic novel is hit or miss, and a comic novel that sounds like it might have an axe to grind--a beleaguered academic writing reluctant letters of reference promises to be thinly veiled whining from someone in a similar position--sounds just awful. But...but. I don't know what the "but" is--"but" I requested it from NetGalley anyway,
I needn't have worried--it is NOT about whining. I mean, the character whines a lot, but he's genuinely hilarious. I did get annoyed with him when he went off-topic--I completely understood why so many people couldn't stand him--but I also found it kind of charming when he wrote way-too-honest letters:
"This letter recommends Melanie deRueda for admission to the law school on the well-heeled side of campus. I've known Ms. deRueda for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes. This young woman is certainly tenacious, if that's what you're looking for. A transfer student, she appears to be suffering under the delusion that a recommendation from any random faculty member within our august institution will be the key to her application's success."
This would get old, but it's just the framework and the vehicle for telling the story--the story of his life, and the story of this school year. He writes to his department head and the dean, complaining about cuts to the English and Creative Writing departments. He writes to his exes and old classmates, who work at other institutions, in other parts of his university, or in business. He recommends students and tries to find a position for his protege. He soothes exes, complains about the state of academia, and worries about old friends.
And over the course of this, we get a clearer picture of him--his early literary success, his conflicts with his exes, his reputation as a crank in the department. It's not just a character sketch, though--you can watch the relationships work out in this one sided correspondence.
I also learned more words in this book than I ever have. My Kindle is earning its props for instant definitions; I've highlighted mephitic, senescence, strabismic, ding an sich, and yclempt, and that's just in the last quarter of the book when I started highlighting.
If this review does not adequately convey that I found the book amusing, whimsical, and touching, then it's because I'm still kind of jet lagged. Sometimes it's the books you really like that you have a hard time explaining.
(Received a free copy from NetGalley for an honest review.)