The Book Maven’s Literary Advent Calendar, Day Four

December 5th, 2014 | Filed under Books, Reading, The Book Maven's Literary Advent Calendar

It’s been a dark day, a blot on everyone’s escutcheon. Many of us are wondering how it can be that a homicide goes unpunished. My heart has been heavy.

Although I don’t put this Calendar together with any message of religious faith, I was reminded as I thought about how to write today’s post that the Christian season of Advent is a season that takes place during the darkest days of the year. Early church fathers knew that people had been celebrating those days with feasts of light and warmth for thousands and thousands of years; they deliberately decided to place the liturgical weeks leading up to a celebration of Christ’s birth (we can all agree, can’t we, that Christ wasn’t actually born on December 25th? Please, no comments about how “Jesus is the reason for the season”).

That choice made sense culturally–and psychologically. Humans need community, and as the days grow short, gathering around fires (and candles, and strings of lights) helps us feel less alone and less cold.

If you, like me are dismayed by the verdict in the Garner case, head towards the light–not necessarily the one at the end of Advent, but the one that involves meeting with other people. Share your despair, then choose change. (See yesterday’s Calendar entry for a book that asks relevant questions.)

Today’s book pick is, in the spirit of lighting an Advent candle, lighter and funnier, although still about serious issues.

Dear Committee Members by Julie SchumacherYou may not have been an English major in college (spoiler alert: I wasn’t!), but if you were fortunate enough to attend college, you took at least one English class–so you’ll recognize the special sauce from which Julie Schumacher has fashioned the narrator of her epistolary novel of academia. Jason Fitger, professor of English and creative writing at the fictional Payne University, is a mix of bitterness, craftiness, and neediness, and the result tastes better thanĀ Schadenfreude. Professor Fitger has lots and lots of recommendation and reference letters to write, some of them sincere and some of them exercises in frustration–especially the ones in which he is forced to plead with his academically more powerful ex wife.

Schumacher takes Sayre’s Law (“In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake. That is why academic politics are so bitter”) and builds a tiny world from it–high comedy in a low-stakes place. Anyone who loved Lucky Jim, Pictures from an Institution, or Moo will love the humor and snark in Dear Committee Members. Jason Fitger’s writing career is foundering as badly as his department–while Payne English programs face more and more cuts, the Economics Department, one floor up, keeps getting more and more funding. Some students are brilliant and can’t leave, while dullards ask for job references with alacrity.

Had the author stopped at snark, reading her novel would still be a complete delight; even in his cups, Jason Fitger signs letters to his new department chair “Cordially and with a hearty welcome to the madhouse” and damns student requests with the faintest praise (“diligent”). However, Schumacher provides enough glimpses of Fitger’s passion for his field and sympathy for his charges that what might be fine comedy is raised to the level of social commentary. Anyone who cares about the future of reading, writing, and misanthropy should read this novel immediately.

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