Dear Committee Members

9780385538138_p0_v1_s260x420English professors write the best letters of recommendation, but beware. They can kill you with articulate faint praise (and sometimes vitriol) – and you won’t even know. In her epistolary, Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher chronicles the life of an English Professor – from the idiotic to the sublime – through his letters.  As the letters progress through the academic year, Jay Fitger reveals his relationships with colleagues, students, former wives, current lovers, literary agents, and Payne University where he is a long-time tenured professor of English and Creative Writing.  Without tenure, he could not have survived, and with true academic justice, he eventually becomes one of the administrators he consistently criticizes.

Not everyone will appreciate the humor – maybe you’d have to have been there – but I laughed out loud. And I wondered if Schumacher had somehow gotten into my files of LOR (letters of recommendation) when one letter about a student’s research skills notes:

He cited his dentist and his roommate as primary sources…

Jay Fitger never refuses a request for a letter, and he always tells the truth.  You won’t have to read too carefully through the abstruse wording to get the witty references.

Sadly, computerized forms and electronic messaging are replacing letter writing. Stamps are becoming extinct and writing paper may soon be hard to find. Ironically, I read the book on my iPad. But, within the context of letters, Schumacher humorously demonstrates how language can be its own reward, and tells a good story with it.



After finishing The Divorce Papers, a friend noted that she too liked epistolaries – motivating me to find more.  Now on my to-read list:

books   220px-HerzogNovel  books-1  9781597228602_p0_v1_s260x420  9781625584434_p0_v2_s260x420

  • The Documents in the Case – (Dorothy Sayers crime novel)
  • Herzog (Saul Bellow)
  • The Pull of the Moon (Elizabeth Berg)
  • The Letters (Luanne Rice and Joe Monninger)
  • The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise

Do you have a favorite epistolary to recommend?

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As Always, Julia

What if Julia Child had tweeted or emailed?  Then Joan Reardon would not have had the rich resources to compile Julia Childs’ letters into an epistolary in As Always, Julia.

Their correspondence starts with a knife: Julia writes a letter to Avis DeVoto’s husband, a journalist who has written an essay on knives; Avis responds and starts an enduring friendship.  Both women are revealed as savvy cooks, brilliant conversationalists, and with the same political leanings – not a stretch, since McCarthyism was in full swing at the time.

If you’ve forgotten from the movie, Julie and Julia – or Child’s own tome, My Life in France – DeVoto was the catalyst who, with her connections in the publishing world, steered Julia into the contract with Houghton Mifflin and then Knopf to the Mastering the Art of French Cooking volumes that we know today.

To be honest, I did not read every letter.  The information is the same as in My Life in France, but without the haughty persona of the public Julia.  In her letters – sometimes really long letters – Julia is gossipy, chatty, her real self.

“Whom shall I write to, for fun, when you are away?”

I did skip over the cookery lessons, the back and forth about herbs,  frozen foods, and casseroles.  But I enjoyed the inside information that you can only get when someone reads the letters you’ve sent to a good friend – not expecting that any other eyes will see them.

Did I like it?  Actually, I liked My Life in France more; it seemed easier to read.  These letters were recently unsealed from the DeVoto estate, and Reardon keeps them in tact and in chronological order – with only a few explanatory asides.  At times, reading them felt like research.

If you have not yet read about Julia’s life from the many books out there, you will probably find As Always, Julia more interesting.  But Julia Child is an icon that endures, and Julia fans can never get enough of her.

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The Queen of the Tambourine

When does the balance tip from talking too much to babbling like an idiot?  What’s the difference between being eccentric or certifiably disturbed?  Eliza, in Jane Gardam’s Whitbread Award winning Queen of the Tambourine, seems to be just a lonely 50-year-old housewife whose husband has left her – until she sees a man dissolve down a drain.

Organized as letters to a missing neighbor – an epistolary – the story begins with a nosy uptight Eliza, writing to give unsolicited advice to the woman who lives next door at number 34 Rathbone Road.   The letters are never answered and so become more like a diary, chronicling Eliza’s thoughts; as the letters continue, they get longer and more involved, and hardly letters at all.  Gardam is the author of Old Filth, and this earlier novel has all the same British flavor.

the tambourines

Gardam cleverly disguises real incidents with fabulous illusions, and, after a while, you will wonder which is true.  When a well-meaning neighbor says,  “Eliza…We’re all so worried…We’ve been having meetings about you…” – you will think the ruse is up, but then Gardam pulls you right back in with another one of Eliza’s fantastic tales about phantom pregnancies, babies stolen, Hospice patients as art critics –  sprinkled with catty comments that seem real enough…

“There must be something in his head except parish difficulties.  After all it takes six years to become a priest – long as a vet. He must have learned something about sick souls…”

Funny or hysterical?  Observations or delusions?  Eliza’s state of mind goes in and out, from the past to the present and back.  You’re never sure what she is making up and what she imagines, but you know – and so does she – that something is not right.

“Hallucinations are not always produced by drugs you know, or by brain-disease.  They are often wilfully conjured…”

In the end, like Chris Bohjalian’s Double Bind, all is revealed and explained.  You’ll find out the significance of  the house at Number 34, and all the pieces of Eliza’s story – real and imagined – come together.  You will want to read it again to catch the clues.

After reading Old Filth, I became a fan of Gardam.  Luckily, she’s a prolific writer.

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