LOR for “Dear Committee Members”

September 22, 2014

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Dear Blog Reader,

Having just finished reading the novel Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher (Doubleday, 2014), I find it incumbent upon me to write a review recommending this tome in the highest possible terms.

I knew I was in for an enjoyable read when, on page 12, the protagonist, a Mr. Jason Fitger, Professor of Creative Writing/English at Payne University, writes of a student “Mr. Leszczynski attended class faithfully, arriving on time, and rarely succumbed to the undergraduate impulse to check his cell phone for messages or relentlessly zip and unzip his backpack in the final minutes of class.” I knew that student!  He could have been any number of graduates from the high schools where I taught!

This unusually creative book utilizes an interesting format, composed of letters of recommendation (LORs), online application forms, and internal university e-mails, all set over the course of an academic year.  The genius of the novel lies in the way in which we learn about the protagonist’s life and opinions about the inner workings of a university through this correspondence.  While Professor Fitger does not always come across as a particularly sympathetic character (the term ‘curmudgeon’ comes to mind), the reader cannot help but admire his brilliant -albeit passive-aggressive – writing.  And buried underneath everything is a genuine concern for his students and love both for writing and the higher purpose of a university.

This is satire at its finest.  None of the people I know in higher education would ever resort to the kind of sarcasm and soul-baring that makes this novel so funny and yet poignant.  That Professor Fitger does makes the novel not only a delightful read, but also a truly original contribution to the contemporary dialogue about higher education in this country.  There are surprises around every corner, starting and ending with the headings and signatures.  I would encourage the reader to resist the urge to skim over these, lest they miss closings like “From the prow of the Titanic, JTF”.

Having written hundreds of LORs myself over the course of my teaching career, I can recommend this particular collection without reservation.

“Extracting pleasure from the task as always”,

Lisa Thorton

Retired Spanish Teacher and Erstwhile Blogger

 

 

“A Triple Knot” in Plantaganet England (…and France…and Ghent)

You know what they say:  “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.  Even so, I have to admit I was a little uncertain about A Triple Knot, by Emma Campion (Random House, 2014).  The cover borders on “bodice-ripper”, somewhat reminiscent of the Harlequin Romances I shuddered at during my bookseller years.  (You know, the ones that used Fabio as the model…)  But when I saw that the author had dedicated it to a Professor of Medieval and Renaissance History at the University of Edinburgh, and that she had included a bibliography, I decided to give it a try, because I love good historical fiction.  I was not disappointed.

Set in fourteenth century Plantaganet England, France, and Ghent, this novel tells the story of Joan, the “Fair Maid of Kent”, who is best known as the cousin and wife of Edward, the Black Prince.  The title could refer either to the fact that Joan was married three times, or to the fact that through her clandestine first marriage and her second (and subsequently annulled) marriage, Joan was clearly the marital choice of her third husband, Edward, despite the disapproval of his parents.  The author reports that her curiosity about Joan was piqued by the fact that she requested in her will to be buried with her first husband, Thomas Holland, instead of with Edward.

The writing is not the best I’ve encountered, though Campion tells a good story.  Some of her characters seem a bit forced, and sentences like “they melted together” feel a bit simpering.  But good material will always win out in the end, and Joan’s story is fascinating.  She emerges as a strong woman who knows what she wants despite a brutal family and a brutal time.  The author has a good grasp of the minutia of medieval life, which makes this novel a compelling immersion in the sights, sounds, and smells of the past.  If you are a fan of Philippa Gregory or Sharon Kay Penman, you will enjoy this addition to the historical fiction genre.

I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

Retirement rest, reflection, reinvention, and -of course!- reading

In a chat with one of my friends who retired several years ago after a very successful career in the Army, she told me that she planned to pursue the “3 Rs” of rest, reflection, and reinvention.  I liked that alliteration and so have adopted it for myself, adding “reading” to the list.  Now that it’s September and I’m well and truly into my retirement, I thought I would write about where I am in this process, of course weaving a few book reviews in at the end!

Rest  After returning from my adventure in the San Juan Islands, I realized how very tired I actually was!  For the last thirty years I have used my summers to do all the projects that needed doing and just couldn’t get done during the school year.  This summer I fell into the same pattern, painting the interior of my entire house being just one example.  My husband even joked with a neighbor that I seemed to be working harder in retirement than when I was “working”.  It’s only now that I’ve been able to step back and let myself relax a bit that I’ve seen how truly stressed out I really was.  The all-consuming nature of the teaching profession seems even more pronounced now that I’ve had the chance to distance myself from it, which leads to me to…

Reflection  As I was leaving for the airport to return from my wonderful week in San Juan Island and Oregon, my dear friend, Debbie, made me promise that I wouldn’t read any books about education for at least a month.  I had been talking to her about a couple of book reviews on education reform that had piqued my interest.  I still intend to read those books, just not until October.  🙂  But in the meanwhile, I’ve been thinking a lot about one review in particular, in which it was pointed out that the average American teacher works almost twice as much as their colleagues in pretty much every other developed country in the world (in some cases, triple!)

Many of my non-teacher friends have gone to reduced hours as a prelude to their retirement.  Unfortunately, this isn’t really encouraged in public schools, and financially it just made more sense for me to outright retire.   I do think I could have made a difference for many students for at least a few more years if I had been able to teach only two or three classes, but that just wasn’t going to be an option.  And I’ve thought throughout my whole career that I would have been a truly exemplary teacher if I had just had more time, i.e., fewer classes.  We seem to have been in a hand-wringing mode in our discourse about public education pretty much since I started over thirty years ago, but of all the reforms I’ve seen floated, this is the one that I think could actually make a genuine difference in the achievement of our young people.  Unfortunately, it is also the reform that is least likely to ever be taken seriously or implemented.  It would cost money, you see, and we don’t really want to spend our money on our young people in this country, despite protests to the contrary.

At first I thought that I would like to continue teaching Spanish in some way, perhaps looking for one or two community college classes, but increasingly I’m feeling very strongly that it’s time for me to put that part of life definitively behind me.  My reflection has led me to think a lot about…

Reinvention  If I were a millionaire, I would be buying a house on San Juan Island right now.  Whenever I imagine what a new life would look like, I see yoga, hiking, sea-kayaking, tide-pooling, bicycling, reading, and then writing.  I think I’ve always believed there was a writer in me.  My favorite part of college and graduate school was researching and writing papers, and students were always asking me to write letters of recommendation for them because they heard I wrote good ones.  I’m not sure what form my writing might take in the future.  I’m not very good with criticism (a fatal flaw for a writer!), and I don’t know that I actually have anything that interesting to say.  But I’m enjoying this little blog immensely, so I guess that’s where I’ll stay for now.  Maybe my friend, Pam, will write her book about the Camino de Santiago and she’ll let me help edit it.  In the meanwhile, I’m savoring the newfound time to pursue my obsession with…

Reading  Since my last post, I’ve read three very good books.  On a Hoof and a Prayer:  Exploring Argentina at a Gallopby Polly Evans (Delta, 2008) was a thoroughly enjoyable tour of Argentina, where the author decides to take the riding lessons she’s been craving since childhood and then ride wherever possible in the country.  Her British wit is a bit less pronounced here than in her previous books, but her descriptions of the people she meets and the landscape she rides through are exquisite.  I was almost shivering with the cold when she was in Ushuaia, for example, and she perfectly conveys the personalities of the various horses she rides.  (I took a particular liking to “Floppy” for some reason.  Maybe I just really liked the name!)  My grasp of Latin American history is not as extensive as I would like it to be, and Evans does a very nice job of explaining that history in an engaging and accessible style.  Her description of the rise of Eva – “Evita” – Perón, for example, is one of the most succinct and yet informative that I’ve encountered.  In my ideal world, I guess I would like to write travel books…I just don’t know that I have that talent or voice!

After leaving Argentina, I took a completely different tack (is that a horse phrase?…) and launched into post WWII Germany in The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink (Vintage, 2008).  This is the next selection for my book group, and we’ll also be watching the movie when we meet later this week.  I liked it well enough, and found the exploration of personal responsibility to be very interesting.  The language was a bit stilted and sometimes pedantic, though I don’t know if that is because of the translation or because German is just that way.  In any event, it was one of those books I always thought I should read and had just never gotten around to.  There’s a certain current of reinvention throughout the novel, though I hope I can do better in the end than the female main character.

Finally, I’ve just finished Blue Plate Special:  An Autobiography of My Appetites, by the novelist Kate Christensen (Random House, 2013).  My husband gave it to me for our anniversary, I think because he thought it was a food and travel narrative.  It’s actually more of a memoir – with  a bit of travel and some recipes thrown in.  As I’ve been thinking about reinvention I found it very interesting to follow the trajectory of a writer who is actually a contemporary (she was born in 1962), though her life and mine could not possibly have been more different.  In truth, I didn’t always find the author to be a particularly sympathetic character, a conclusion with which I think she would probably actually agree.  Her chaotic hippie childhood in Berkeley and then Arizona, her numerous romantic involvements, her alcohol-infused New York writing career, all are vastly different from my small-town Colorado childhood and suburban adult teacher years.  We do share a memory of things like “space sticks”, “TV dinners”,  and intense homesickness during a year in Europe, which has me thinking about the incongruous ways in which even the most disparate of experiences can intersect.  As I imagine a writing life, this book has me wondering what that could look like for someone of my background and temperament.

Rest, reflection, reinvention, and reading.  Retirement, I have to say, suits me very well so far!