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Julie Schumacher Makes Thurber History

Susan Notes:

Julie Schumacher won the 2015 Thurber Prize for American Humor for her book, Dear Committee Members (Doubleday), becoming the first woman ever to receive the award. The award was established in 1996 and is named for the late humorist and cartoonist James Thurber. Previous winners include Jon Stewart, David Sedaris, and Calvin Trillin

Barnes & Noble summary: Finally a novel that puts the "pissed" back into "epistolary."

Soon after the book was published, I prefaced a mailing announcement with a sentence about how funny the book is--funny and, surprisingly, poignant. But now I'll offer a few reviews.

Maureen Corrigan's NPR review lets you know the set-up for this very very funny novel

For all you teachers out there contemplating the August calendar with dismay, watching, powerless, as the days of summer vacation dwindle down to a precious few, I have some consolation to offer: a hilarious academic novel that'll send you laughing (albeit ruefully) back into the trenches of the classroom.

Julie Schumacher's novel is called Dear Committee Members and one of the reasons why it's such a mordant minor masterpiece is the fact that Schumacher had the brainstorm to structure it as an epistolary novel. This book of letters is composed of a year's worth of recommendations that our anti-hero — a weary professor of creative writing and literature — is called upon to write for junior colleagues, lackluster students and even former lovers. The gem of a law school recommendation letter our beleaguered professor writes for a cutthroat undergrad who he's known for all of "eleven minutes," is alone worth the price of Schumacher's book. . . .

You can read more of Corrigan's rave review here, but really, I just recommend that you go read the book.

That said, here are snippets from a few more reviews:

by Brock Clarke, New York Times

To all the creative writing teachers in the audience: Have you ever been tempted to turn your letters of recommendation into truth-telling sessions -- not just about the mouthbreathers for whom you're writing the letters, but also about your cretinous bosses, your vengeful ex-spouses, your wounded current lovers, your dunderheaded literary agents? Hey, no, just wondering; me neither! Which is just as well, because our letters couldn't compete with the testimonials written by Jason T. Fitger, professor of creative writing at Payne University and the protagonist of Schumacher's terrific new novel. The book is hilarious: When Jay writes a letter for a former student seeking a supermarket job, he notes that the applicant once wrote a story "about an inebriated man who tumbles into a cave and surfaces from an alcoholic stupor to find that a tentacled monster -- a sort of fanged and copiously salivating octopus, if memory serves -- is gnawing through the flesh of his lower legs." At the end of the letter, Jay suggests the supermarket "might start him off in produce, rather than seafood or meats." But Schumacher also brilliantly uses the epistolary form to show Jay's desperation in the face of his crumbling university, career, life. In all this, her scabrous book reminds me of Sam Lipsyte̢۪s Home Land, Richard Russo's Straight Man and Jincy Willett's Winner of the National Book Award. If you didn't find those books funny, well, that means you're a corpse. But you're also, apparently, a corpse who reads, so there's hope for you yet. You should read Dear Committee Members; maybe it will bring you back to life.

by Ann Beatty:

Let's not look at this as an epistolary novel about the academic world, but as a laying out of the Tarot cards of our society̢۪s past and future. It̢۪s that indicative. That important. In the end, the future looks not quite so grim, but my reading is that like so many novels that investigate independence and fierce belief (with Melville in the lead), we have to read between the lines, infer, assume, and hope that the American virtues of compassion, empathy, and even wild projection will continue. This is a funny, very sad, disarming novel. My pitch to Hollywood would be: David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress meets Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood but--and here I'm just another expendable would-be savior, like Ms. Schumacher's character Jay Fitger--nobody would know what I was talking about. My hat's off to the author of this flawlessly written, highwire act of a book. Hollywood be damned.

by Jay Parini

Dear Committee Members is a brilliant book that, in my head, sits comfortably on my prized shelf of academic novels, right between Lucky Jim and Pictures from an Institution. But it's funnier than either, and more wrenching in the end. The conceit of a novel told in letters of reference is inspired, and it is killingly funny because it's all so killingly true. Truth walks here in the strangest of costumes, and in part because of its guises, we can face it, frown, laugh, cry. I've never lost an afternoon so happily.

In The New Yorker, Jon Michaud wrote his tribute to the book in the form of a letter to the Admissions Department at the MacDowell Colony.

— Susan Ohanian
Reviews of Dear Committee Member


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