MSP Reading Time: Books and Bars Reads Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members

[Cross post with my BookLikes book blog, ReadingRainstorm]

I attended my second Books and Bars event held at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall last night, which was focused on one of my favorite books I read last year, Dear Committee Members. Written by Julie Schumacher, a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota, I found the book to be a fast paced read, sharp, biting, and delightfully prickly. Making this Books and Bars even cooler than most, Julie Schumacher herself was present to discuss the book and her writing. This led to some fascinating discussions of the novel’s lead character, J.T. Fitger, the state of academia, the neglect of English departments, and writing seminars. Along with a few beers from Bang Brewing, and some of the Amsterdam’s interesting broodjes (little sandwiches, including goat cheese, eggplant, and many other varieties) and some frites, it was definitely a good time. I will have to pay a visit to Bang Brewing, as I found the Como, an American Bitter, to be very good, but I’d have to try more!

An epistolary novel of academic and professional ennui, Dear Committee Members is a wry and bleakly comic account of one curmudgeonly chauvinistic creative writing professor’s rather unfortunate semester.  Told through a collection of sarcastic letters of recommendation, interdepartmental memos, and other correspondence penned by the bitter English Professor and would be great author, Jason Fitger, of the “second rate” private liberal arts college Payne University, we are treated to his passive aggressive barbs aimed at his students, his colleagues, and his former friends and lovers. Fitger rarely passes up an opportunity for editorializing, ranting, and self aggrandizement, particularly in letters to former flames and ex-wives, there is a pathos here that laments the current state of academia in addition to one man’s feeling of personal failure, as we are forced to watch him grapple helplessly with clunky online evaluations, callow undergrads, unsympathetic administrators, and the toxic dust being pumped into his department by the refurbishment of the economics department while his window still doesn’t close; there is tragedy and comedy, as well as a depressing amount of familiarity.  Payne University, located somewhere in the Midwest, could definitely be a Minnesotan institution; in fact, I may have visited at some point!

Schumacher writes with a deft pen, granting the egotistic professor with a pathos that makes him feel sympathetic, and as she admitted, she sometimes identifies with him herself. I, too, could definitely relate to his environment, if not his sarcastic personality, and his wit and venom certainly led to some laugh out loud funny moments. In Fitger, Schumacher has created a great unreliable guide to the world of the English department. I just wonder how he’ll respond when he discovers RateMyProfessor!

I found Julie Schumacher’s insights into the publishing world and how even something as simple as a cover chosen for your book can dictate how you are going to write it. If you’re really sad you missed it, the last few Books and Bars discussions were recorded and will be broadcast on the Story North podcast by September. Speaking of September, the next book chosen for reading is Go Set a Watchman, that sequel that’s been in the news lately. So, better get your reserves set up fast! Currently sitting at 1722 at the Hennepin County Library, but only 25 in St. Paul! Personally, I’d say that Dear Committee Members is probably a lot more fun. I recommend it!

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