Monday, November 10, 2014

Dear Committee Members

Title:  Dear Committee Members
Author:  Julie Schumacher
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2014. 192 pages.
ISBN:  0385538138 / 978-0385538138

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Favorite Quote:  "You and I are both in the business of believing in, and promoting, things that don't yet exist. The leap of faith:  it's equal parts wishful thinking, vicarious ambition, and bullshit, and yet..."

Jason T. Fitger is a Professor of Creative Writing and English at Payne University, a small liberal arts school. He spends a lot of time writing recommendation letters for students and colleagues. This book is an epistolary tale told through the letters he writes during the 2009-2010 school year.

A web search for "letter of recommendation" results in over 28 million hits - how to ask for them, how to write them, what to do with them. Letters of recommendations (LORs) consume a lot of time and energy! As Jason Fitger says in one of his letters, "Suffice it to say that the LOR has usurped the place of my own work, now adorned with cobwebs and dust in a remote corner of my office."

The dictionary defines a letter of recommendation as "a formal letter that explains why a person is appropriate or qualified for a particular job, school, etc." Jason Fitger's letters range from emails to online forms with limited space to write. The people for whom he writes these letters range from students, former students, colleagues, and even his ex-wife. The nature of the recommendations ranges from acceptability for admission to a program of study, grants, writing residency programs and, of course, jobs. The recipients for these letters range from scholarship programs, universities including his own, employers, old colleagues, and even his ex-wife.

Mind you, these are not letters you actually want sent on your behalf. They are a medium through which he expresses himself - sometimes without any of the filters that should enter into such a task. Through these letters, we learn about Jason Fitger's shambles of a personal life, the precarious position of the English Department at Payne, the sad status of his own writing, his disillusionment with the functioning of academia, and his unedited thoughts about the individuals who have asked for recommendations.

Through the epistolary format, a more serious story does develop leading to an ending I did not expect. The story develops around one of his students, Darren Browles. Several of the letters center around trying to solicit support for this struggling author. The parallels are clear. In Darren Browles, Jason Fitger perhaps sees his own younger self. He wants Darren to succeed, in a way that perhaps he himself never did.

Jason Fitger is not a particularly likable man. He has destroyed relationships in his life through his own actions. He is disillusioned and sarcastic. His letters can be downright scathing. I don't want him to write my recommendation letters, but the satire and humor in them is entertaining to read.

This book is pretty short, at under 200 pages. The entire story is told through these recommendation letters. Some of them are really funny, but read all together, the book appears to get a little repetitive despite its short length. Yes, the academic world has its foibles. Yes, the English Department at Payne needs help. Yes, Jason Fitger's track record in relationships is pretty abysmal. What else remains to be told?

I read the story straight through as any other fiction book. It probably lends itself better to being read a few letters at a time. That way, the humor and the satire stand out rather than the thought of having read that a letter or two ago.

My recommendation: A funny read if taken in little doses at a time.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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