I discovered Julie Schumacher when her second book, The Shakespeare Requirement, became a staple in the gift-shop of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, where I worked, and then I heard her interview on the Folger Shakespeare Theatre podcast. But I discovered it was the second in a series, so first I picked up Dear Committee Members, an epistolary novel about the perils of academia and I truly laughed out loud.
If you,like me, want to dive into Schumacher’s work, here’s where to start..
Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters, while one floor above them the Economics Department is getting lavishly remodeled offices. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His star (he thinks) student can’t catch a break with his brilliant (he thinks) work Accountant in a Bordello, based on Melville’s Bartleby. In short, his life is a tale of woe, and the vehicle this droll and inventive novel uses to tell that tale is a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies. We recommend Dear Committee Members to you in the strongest possible terms.
Now is the fall of his discontent, as Jason Fitger, newly appointed chair of the English Department of Payne University, takes arms against a sea of troubles, personal and institutional. His ex-wife is sleeping with the dean who must approve whatever modest initiatives he undertakes. The fearsome department secretary Fran clearly runs the show (when not taking in rescue parrots and dogs) and holds plenty of secrets she’s not sharing. The lavishly funded Econ Department keeps siphoning off English’s meager resources and has taken aim at its remaining office space. And Fitger’s attempt to get a mossbacked and antediluvian Shakespeare scholar to retire backfires spectacularly when the press concludes that the Bard is being kicked to the curricular curb.
I’m Adrienne Haus, survivor of a mother-daughter book club. Most of us didn’t want to join. My mother signed me up because I was stuck at home all summer, with my knee in a brace. CeeCee’s parents forced her to join after cancelling her Paris trip because she bashed up their car. The members of “The Unbearable Book Club,” CeeCee, Jill, Wallis, and I, were all going into eleventh grade A.P. English. But we weren’t friends. We were literary prisoners, sweating, reading classics, and hanging out at the pool. If you want to find out how membership in a book club can end up with a person being dead, you can probably look us up under mother-daughter literary catastrophe. Or open this book and read my essay, which I’ll turn in when I go back to school.
Three months pregnant after a two-night stand, Jane Haus resigns her job teaching English to confront her ambivalence about having a baby. Drawn by an irresistible inner homing device, she returns to her childhood home on the New Jersey shore–to a gruff and eccentric father who spends his days in a room full of clocks; to her brilliant sister Bee, as efficiently organized as the summer is formless; to the blissfully hot privacy of an attic full of memories; to water. And in this chaotic season of growth Jane will try to piece together the puzzle of her family’s history–searching for an understanding of the mother she never really knew…and reaching out for the solace only family can offer.
It’s hard for Thea to write four truths a day in the notebook her mother gave her for the summer. Especially when her grandparents’ house on the Jersey Shore is even more packed with family than usual, and her cousin Jocelyn wont leave her alone. Jocelyn just might be the world’s neatest and nosiest seven-year-old, and she wants to know what’s in Thea’s notebook. But Thea won’t tell anyone about the secret she has promised to keep–or how she lost her best friend (Truth #12), whose name was Gwen.
Now Thea has to babysit in the afternoons, and all Jocelyn wants to do is spy on people. Neither of them expect to see Aunt Ellen and Aunt Celia at the boardwalk in the middle of the day, or for their aunts to lie and insist they were at work. Could it be Thea’s not the only one in the family keeping secrets this summer?
Livvie isn’t superstitious like her best friend, Joyce, who thinks everything is bad luck. So Livvie isn’t worried about tearing up the chain letter and throwing it away–until she’s humiliated in gym class, falls down her back stairs, and gets invited to Thanksgiving dinner at Peter Finch’s house. Peter’s dad has crooked teeth, a plastic wonderland in his front yard, and some kind of secret up in his study. There is no way Livvie wants Phil Finch to date her mom.
But it’s hard work keeping their families apart–especially when Livvie is assigned to work on the sixth-grade snow maze project with Peter. Clearly, Joyce was right: breaking the chain was a huge mistake. And the only way to set things straight is to find out who sent the letter in the first place. . . .
WHEN DORA, ELENA’S older sister, is diagnosed with depression and has to be admitted to the hospital, Elena can’t seem to make sense of their lives anymore. At school, the only people who acknowledge Elena are Dora’s friends and Jimmy Zenk—who failed at least one grade and wears blackevery day of the week. And at home, Elena’s parents keep arguing with each other. Elena will do anything to help her sister get better and get their lives back to normal—even when the responsibility becomes too much to bear.