Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Perhaps, I am in the minority, but 2014 didn’t smack me as a great year for novels. There were a few that were personal favorites (most notably The Fever), but there were far more disappointments. I am a bit bummed that I let Julie Schumacher’s novel Dear Committee Members wait till four months after publication, but I am so happy that I finally read it and at an addicting speed, no less.

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This novel will be especially appreciated by those who have swam through the sludge that is academic bureaucracy (and also anyone seeking out employment where references are required). The book is told entirely in the form of Letters of Recommendation, or LOR, written by a technophobic, vain and unpleasant professor of creative writing and literature at a university in Minnesota. The novel has all the components to steal my heart.*

Professor Jason Fitger has written over 1,300 LOR, a process that seems to be the primary reason for not penning a new book in more than half a decade (I’m not even sure when he would have to time to teach the classes he mentions). The letters he writes are funny, revealing, self-involved, and entirely inappropriate for so many reasons. Readers will love this book, but especially those who have had to deal with the ridiculous requirement of LOR.

Not only is Professor Fitger penning LOR for academic programs, colleagues’ promotions, etc., but also for his students who are applying for employment at RV parks, produce factories, and technology firms.

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Over the school year, Fitger is one of the lone professors who has remained behind in the building housing the English department, which is undergoing vast (and crumbling) renovations. As a former English major, I feel it’s my duty to note the parallel between the department’s physical shambles and the never-ending breakdown of relationships Fitger has in his own life: his ex-wife and former girlfriend have formed a sort of alliance against him, former colleagues deny requests for assistance, and the majority of everyone else is aware of his membership in the pompous ass club.

The novel is, in short, hilarious. It is attuned to what is happening to liberal arts departments, the shunting aside of any course of study that is not part of STEM. It is also a fine critique to the obscene behavior universities deploy so they do not have to pay professor much of anything (employing mostly underpaid and overworked adjuncts, so as to refrain from paying out benefits and salaries).

Shall I dare to say that Dear Committee Members is genius? I shall. (It’s entirely unfortunate how this term–along, with epic, awesome, unbelievable-is splashed upon every article headline these days, but I will refrain from further curmudgeonry, lest I sound too much like Professor Fitger).  I really loved this book and in fact, I finished it in a single day.

 

*I am a sucker for epistolary novels; I’m looking at you, Dracula.

Storytelling Through Crime: “People Who Eat Darkness”

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been knee-deep in books that can be labelled in the true crime genre. I’m generally not an aficionado of murder as entertainment (the sensationalize plots, bad acting, and terrible cop lingo of police procedurals on television, which make me want to gag with a spoon).  Yet, what has drawn me to a few of these titles has been more about the storytelling and craftsmanship. For me, it’s less about the gruesome, vial acts that have occurred, but more how the writer chooses to unfold them.

This began with The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which discusses a mid-19th Century crime and the subsequent investigation during the early days of organized police deduction. I carried on with John Safran’s God’ll Cut You Down, whose voice and point of view is very crucial to the storytelling. Safran is an Australian who goes to Mississippi in the aftermath of an odd crime. In the mysterypod podcast, John Safran discusses his approach to writing his book and how it was not as clear cut as one would have hoped.

My ears perked up when he told the host that he didn’t consider himself a journalist but a storyteller. Safran, too, has a six-part podcast that is worth a listen. It’s titled True Crime and he discusses with famous true crime writers the approach they’ve taken when writing such books. In episode 4, he chats with Joe McGinniss who wrote the magnum opus of crime books, Fatal Vision, which in itself is a master class in how to unravel information through a timeline.
people who eat darknessI hope to wind down from crime books soon (honestly, my threshold for debauchery and violence is being tested). I’ve just finished Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat DarknessIn one word, it was stunning. It was stunning in the complexity of the world it created (Roppongi, a Tokyo district known for its night life), the people who lurk through it, and the “characters” (I use this word as a replacement for the actual real people portrayed). The people are complicated; like Safran’s book, nothing is quite so clear as we would like it to be and like Fatal Vision, answers are not satisfactorily answered like in an Agatha Christie novel.

The crime is brutal and inhuman. If a reader can move past that and read the book for its storytelling, a writer can learn a lot from Parry and the others listed above. They have all moved past the sensationalism of the crime itself and focus on the people, the order of invents, and the style of their writing.

Because I’m currently working on short stories that toe the lines of horror, the uncanny, suspense, and unnerving, when to reveal or withhold are very important. Letting go of too much at one time can undermined the atmosphere and story.

I have a few more on my docket, but these, like The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, are from events of years past. There is something about reading about contemporary crimes (let’s say last sixty or so years) that make these books particularly uncomfortable.

True crime can be a hard subject; I found In Cold Blood to be highly difficult to read when I read it six or seven years ago and I’m at my breaking point when it comes to anything Jack the Ripper related. Sometimes, cloaking true events in the guise of a novel can make it a little bit easier to deal with as is the case of the completely gripping The Murder Farm.

Does anyone else read these kinds of books? And if so, what do you make of them? Are they guilty pleasure imbibed in when you’re at an airport bookstore or go to reads when they’re published? It’s definitely been an interesting foray into non-fiction for a while. A different kind of reading experience for sure.

Armchair Detectives!

I am completely obsessed with the Serial podcast. I am a big fan of This American Life and general audiobookery (my iphone is begging for reprieve from anymore downloads). I especially listen to audio over reading books when I travel and since I was abroad for a couple of months, my iphone was really proving itself. I started to listen to Serial when I was in Austria for three weeks and had no idea that it was such a huge hit back in the States, but then I saw an article in Die Zeit (a large German newspaper) about the podcast and finally realized how hip everyone was to it. There is one episode left, which I am anxiously awaiting.

Last night, I stumbled upon–dare I say it–a completely interesting Buzzfeed article: 29 True Crime Books Fans Of “Serial” Should Read. Although, I generally avoid all things list and Buzzfeed, this one was actually good. I’ve only read a couple on the list, but the compilation got my TBR list kicking. Have you read any of these? Any to recommend?

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Winter Big Read 2014

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December is upon us. I usually take this time to read a book of my choosing. I’m usually swamped with galleys for review here and for the articles I separately write for publications (as I type this, I have a few physical and digital ARCs giving me the hard stare). The past few years, however, I’ve decided to put everything aside for part of December and just read what I want. This usually takes the form of a classic. I’m changing it up this year and going from one book to THREE! I shall not pick up anything else while I’m reading my winter reads. In the next days, I’ll finish up any obligatory books and then I’ll be good to go. Here are my choices in planned order of reading.

1. The Moonstone. My first official big read was Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. I thought I’d finally make some room for another classic of his, which I scored for .40 cents at a used book sale.

2. Magellan. I feel like I’ve been out of the Stefan Zweig loop, but during a recent three week visit to Vienna in October, a friend said this was his favorite.

3. Burial Rites. Ach! Am I possibly the only person who hasn’t read this?! I picked it for $2.99 during a flash sale when it was first released and it’s been taunting me ever since.

***

Do you have books ready to go for winter?

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

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Wowzer. I’ve never read Lauren Beukes work before. I’ve been a bit disappointed in myself that I wasn’t able to squeeze The Shining Girls into my reading schedule when it was initially released, but after finishing up Broken Monsters, I will certainly have to get it in the new year.

I must admit that I was intrigued by Broken Monsters when I first read the synopsis; it had a very True Detective quality about it (minus the Lone Star beer and interrogation room philosophizing).

Detroit. Present day. The lifeless body of a missing eleven-year-old boy has been found. However, the upper part of his body has been fused to the lower half of a deer. This heinous crime is just part of the ruined remains of Detroit, a city which has obviously seen better days. Most people are gone and the buildings that remain are all broken.

The central point of the novel is the crime (and the subsequent murders carried out by a serial killer). The novel is constructed by alternating short chapters from various characters’ points of view: Detective Gabi Versado, her fifteen-year-old daughter Layla who seems to be moonlighting as Chris Hansen on To Catch a Predator, the washed up journalist Jonno who moves to Detroit in hopes of utilizing the internet for his big break, among others.

At first, I was unsure how all of the POVs related, but as the narrative progressed, their stories intertwined until they all start to overlap into each others’ lives. Besides Detective Versado, once her daughter’s narrative started to roll, I found myself loving her spunky, take-no-prisoners attitude.

About halfway through, I thought that Broken Monsters would be another run-of-the-mill cop drama (there was even grumpy police lingo and macho doughnut grubbing detectives). I would like to believe that Beukes was just turning around our perceptions of genre fiction.

The final pièce de résistance was a complete loopy, wild ride. I was properly anxious–dare I say uncomfortable. It was successfully treading into horror territory. I had that feeling of I must know what’s gonna happen. I must finish!

So, I’ve broken my ban on acquiring any more books for the next two months until I finish up my stack of galleys and the two books designated as my own “winter big reads” and checked out The Shining Girls from the library. I couldn’t help it! Has anyone else read it or Broken Monsters?

I found an interesting short video where Lauren Beukes talks about violence against women and they way it is often fictitiously portrayed.

 

 

In Search of Lost Literature

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I just threw a request up on Twitter, but I thought I would also mine your eclectic minds and tastes for suggestions. I’m in search of interesting reads–specifically, in the public domain. As much as we all love our Austens and Eliots and insert favorite dead philosopher here, I am on an excavation for those that most of us have overlooked.

Any recs?

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

I was hoping to review this book before Halloween in case anyone was interested in an off the beaten path sort of read, but, alas, like many hopes, it had to be altered, changed, and delayed. Regardless, I hope everyone was able to squeeze in a ghostly story or two, or perhaps, a movie that makes you hear bumps in the night. Sadly, I was taken with a stupid cold on Friday (no doubt, from all of my traveling and little sleeping) and also, Halloween isn’t really noticed at all here in Berlin. But enough of that and more of the supernatural…

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The Supernatural Enhancements is a send-up to classic ghost stories and haunted houses; it’s also a cousin to the once popular “locked door” mysteries. The novel is a combination of fragments–epistles, notes, recorded conversations, video, etc.–and the majority, if not all, of the action takes place within the uneasy walls of Axton House, a large estate in Point Bless, Virginia. After the untimely deaths of the previous owners (the most recent taking a swan dive out of the window), a second cousin twice removed from Europe only identified as A. shows up after the house is bequeathed to him. He is accompanied by a mute Irish teenager named Niamh, who hastily scrawls her thoughts and exclamations onto a notepad, which is presented throughout the pieced together narrative (however, I must admit, these two characters had me rolling my eyes at the beginning, because they were dangerously close to being too cool hipster types; this feeling didn’t completely pass, either).

The novel has a humor about it. The author and the story are well aware of the history of haunted house novels before it and is curiously investigating it in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way.

A: I…I’ve been having some rough nights.
Strückner: Waking up screaming?
A: A couple times.
Strückner: Going to the bathroom in the middle of the night and seeing things?
A: Okay, okay, I see the pattern.

As A. and Niamh continue to live in the house, hoping to identify why the previous owner offed himself, strange occurrences take place and a bigger mystery becomes apparent. I must admit that somewhere in the middle, the once quick and addicting page-turning did become a little tedious. The Supernatural Enhancements would have been served better by tighter editing. There were continuous pages of nothing–meaning, video and audio recording transcripts that offered absolutely no propulsion to the story. Also, the ending did become a bit confusing. Proverbially, I lost the plot. In a way, Cantero was trying to tie up loose ends, but it really didn’t explain the engaging pages he had going for the majority of the book.

Regardless, I would still recommend The Supernatural Enhancements. I’m truly a sucker for epistolary/fragment novels (re: Dracula). Has anyone else read this book? Perhaps, you’ve made better sense of the ending!

Horror fiction from Charles Dickens to Charlie Higson – books podcast

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There is still time remaining to find your Halloween spooky binges (if you are one of those who chooses to indulge in horror only once a year). I’m currently listening to The Guardian Books podcast about horror fiction. So far, so good. It is entirely interesting in that the guests speak to expected horror fiction, but also the important women authors who have contributed to the cannon of horror and terror.

The horror story, beloved of 19th-century armchair thrill-seekers, is making a comeback in some surprising forms. We return to the infancy of the genre with Darryl Jones, editor of a new anthology of 29 classic tales, to find out more about past masters from Charles Dickens to Conan Doyle. Then we turn to Charlie Higson and Robin Ince to find out more about the surprising affinity between horror and comedy, which has led to a collection of terrifyingly funny tales from some of the UK’s best-known stand-ups.

LISTEN 1 |

Budapest Greetings!

The past few days, I took a short trip to Budapest. It was rainy and dark skies the entire time, but still a fantastic city, where I hope to return soon for a longer spot of adventure. We were drenched at Heroes’ Square, we were soaked at the Széchenyi baths (well, I suppose one is always a bit damp there), and adequately moist hiking up Gellért Hill to The Citadella. So, I leave you with this photo taken from the top overlooking Pest. More bookish things to come, I swear! I’m now suitably tired in my apartment in Berlin where the sky is also a foggy grey, which doesn’t help how entirely shattered I feel. But, for now, here is my little postcard from Budapest, which you can click to enlarge.

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Thomas Bernhard on Literature & the Viennese Coffee Haus Disease

As I type this, I sit in my friend’s Wohnung in Vienna. I arrived last night, later than expected as all flights in Berlin were delayed due to a supposed bomb threat according to our pilot, and when I arrived in Austria, it was dark and drizzling. I have been to Vienna once before for just over a week. Perhaps, the great gods of Viennese arts and thought will strike me down as I take my sip of coffee, but I found the city–albeit, beautiful–a bit dull. The buildings are grand and opulent; sometimes I think of structures carved from marzipan by master bakers. I am here for three weeks and a pit grows in my stomach as I try to consider how this city will be more appealing for this longer stay.

Thomas Bernhard, 1957

Like all semi-tech savvy 21st century citizens, when recommendations failed from my friends, I went straight to the internet. There are certainly a few sites and top 10 lists, but they often suggest the same handful of Schlösser, other palatial estates, and museums. I’ve found some sites that are well-kept by engaging locals, which I am more than grateful for, but the trend is to point people of the non-castle trekking variety* to coffeehouses (Kaffeehäuser). Coffeehouses are completely part of Vienna. You have a coffee and a cake (actually, with all of my complaining, this is one of my favorite things to indulge in while in German-speaking countries; I can wax on endlessly about my favorite: pflaumenkuchen.)

I should be more grateful, as I am in the city for a literary grant, but in my curmudgeonry, I thought to Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard was a 20th century Austrian writer who often poked satirical fun at what he thought were the tired and stupid ways of Austrians. His works caused scandals. A favorite of mine is Woodcutters (original title: Holzfällen), where the narrator cleverly mocks a group of dinner guests all the while sitting in a wing chair.

As I sidetracked from my original mission to find something interesting in Vienna, I did a quick internet search of Thomas Bernhard and if he had specific thoughts on the city. I immediately found an excerpt from an autobiographical work called Wittgenstein’s Nephew. The short bit is a humorous reflection that Bernhard has about his relationship to Viennese coffeehouses and what he calls the Viennese coffeehouse disease. It’s a quick read, for sure, but here are a few favorites:

On other literary-inclined coffee house patrons,

These friends introduced me to the refined world of the Sacher, Vienna’s premier coffee-house — not, I am thankful to say, to one that was frequented by the literary folk, whom I have basically always found repugnant[.]

On German and Austrian newspapers (compared to English and French),

From my early youth I have regarded the ability to read English and French books and newspapers as the greatest advantage I possess. What would my world be like, I often wonder, if I had to rely on the German papers, which are for the most part little more than garbage sheets — to say nothing of the Austrian newspapers, which are not newspapers at all but mass-circulation issues of unusable toilet paper?

On Viennese coffee houses and himself,

The truth is that I have always hated the Viennese coffeehouse because in them I am always confronted with people like myself, and naturally I do not wish to be everlastingly confronted with people like myself, and certainly not in a coffeehouse where I go to escape from myself. Yet it is here that I find myself confronted with myself and my kind.

So there you have it. My Viennese dilemma. If you haven’t read Thomas Bernhard, you certainly should start right away. I think many of his books have been reissued in recent years in English translation. Has anyone else visited this beautiful yet dull city? Perhaps you are like my friend who has lived here for many years and compares it and its people to a mausoleum.

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* I love castles, but I think I have seen so many on my previous trip to Vienna, there is no reason for me to go out of my way to see one. If I happen to stumble upon one, I shall look at it, thinks it’s beautiful, and continue walking on (probably to a coffeehouse to have a cake).