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by Julie Schumacher

Pub Date: Aug. 19th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-385-53813-8
Publisher: Doubleday

A disgruntled English professor pours out his hopes, affections and frustrations in an interconnected series of recommendation letters.

In “The Gristmill of Praise,” a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Schumacher (Creative Writing/University of Minnesota; The Unbearable Book Club for Unsinkable Girls, 2012, etc.) revealed that in a single year, she receives more than 1,600 letters of recommendation and writes 50 to 100 of her own. This onslaught of praise inspired her to write a very funny epistolary novel composed of recommendation letters written by a caustic, frustrated and cautiously hopeful English professor named Jason Fitger. He's a former literary wunderkind who parodied his own writing teacher in a successful first novel called Stain 20 years ago and has since parlayed three unsuccessful follow-ups into a tenured position at a small liberal arts college. Over the course of 100 letters, we learn that waste water is leaking into Fitger’s office from the construction of a glorious new economics center above the English department; that he’s engaged in a losing battle of office politics with the administration; that he has a cordial but cold relationship with his ex-wife over in the law school; and that he’s generally kind to most of his students, even the ones who are moving on from college to the local liquor store. His writing, meanwhile, is tremendously florid and mostly cynical: “Mr. Duffy Napp has just transmitted a nine-word email asking that I immediately send a letter of reference to your firm on his behalf; his request has summoned from the basement of my heart a star-spangled constellation of joy, so eager am I to see Mr. Napp well established at Maladin IT.” Most of all, we learn that the failed novelist still has hope for the future—if not for himself, then for one of his students, Darren Browles, whom he's mentoring through a difficult first novel. It’s an unusual form for comedy, but it works.

Truth is stranger than fiction in this acid satire of the academic doldrums.