An Academic Skewering, Talks with Hollywood Royalty, and Ruminations on Suicide
The quarterly books roundup.
Julie Schumacher has done it again. The veteran University of Minnesota creative writing professor has published a second darkly comic novel set among the petty turf wars and interdepartmental skirmishes of the academy.
Her first foray into academic humor, Dear Committee Members, in 2015, was a Thurber Prize-winning novel told through a series of dyspeptic recommendation letters written by disillusioned creative writing teacher Jason Fitger.
In The Shakespeare Requirement (Doubleday) Fitger is back—this time in the third person—and more shocked than anyone to find himself the newly installed department chair of the dysfunctional, backbiting English Department at Payne State University.
The name of this “mid-sized, middlebrow” university—set in an anonymous Midwestern river city—provides Schumacher with an endless source of laugh-out-loud wordplay. Welcome to Payne. Get Ready for Payne. Ten Years of Payne.
Anyone who has ever worked in higher education will recognize the oddball characters, philosophical battles, and bureaucratic lunacy so perfectly detailed in this novel. Among Fitger’s Sisyphean struggles: a bloated and greedy economics department—run by a popinjay named Roland Gladwell—with designs on the English department’s last crumbling bits of real estate; an intimidating department secretary who blocks his every move; and a byzantine online calendar called P-Cal that he steadfastly refuses to use and that routinely precludes the possibility of enjoying face-to-face contact with his fellows in Payne.
Schumacher has an uncanny ear for the pompous verbiage of professors and the insensible, pop-culture strewn conversations of undergraduates. “Will you be grading us on how we write or on our ideas?” one freshman dares ask Fitger on the first day of his Literature of Apocalypse class, thus making himself a ripe target for the disgruntled English professor, who sets off on a lengthy discourse about the inextricable coupling of lucid expression and transparency of meaning. Just before putting the poor kid in his place, Fitger the narrator muses, “He so enjoyed these first, early encounters with incoming freshmen, who were as tender and unsuspecting as asparagus tips.”
Woven throughout the brilliant humor and skillful writing of The Shakespeare Requirement, however, are some serious messages about the current state of higher education. The eponymous battle in the book, of course, has to do with dropping the department’s Shakespeare classes from the curriculum because of their supposed irrelevance to today’s students. Many readers will be reminded of the curriculum war being waged at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point where, facing declining enrollment and devastating budget cuts initiated by Governor Scott Walker, administrators have proposed eliminating 13 humanities majors.
Then there’s the financial battle for the soul of academy, with its growing reliance on corporate and private funding, coupled with the centrality of the university fundraising machine. Scratch the surface of any educational institution these days and you’ll find an army of staffers happy to grant naming rights and even curricular influence in exchange for a new building or academic chair.
Of course, “job creating” departments such as computer science and economics are more likely to be the recipients of this corporate largesse, and Schumacher doesn’t miss a beat there. She delightfully describes the keen differences between the fictional Economics Department’s newly refurbished quarters (“state-of-the-art-technology enhanced classrooms . . . elegant seminar and meeting rooms, faculty offices, and a café . . . stunning mosaic tile floors and skylights underwritten by the Morse Foundation; digital LCD wall displays donated by philanthropist-alum Bill Fixx”) and those of the English Department, with its broken window sashes, blown fuses, network of extension cords, and ancient computers.
In other words, when you read The Shakespeare Requirement, get ready for a hilarious romp through the ridiculous, self-important world of the academy, but be prepared for a few sobering reflections about higher education along the way.
And . . . the roundup
Three new novels by U authors center on the suicides of beloved fathers. The most wrenching is Some Hell (Graywolf), the first major work by promising writer Patrick Nathan, B.A. ’09. From this book’s opening sentence, which recounts the suicide of middle-schooler Colin’s father, to its stunning conclusion, Some Hell is an unforgettable read.
Paternal suicides also haunt the lives of Will, the constantly walking protagonist of Alison McGhee’s What I Leave Behind (Atheneum), and Isabelle, stalwart heroine of Jane St. Anthony’s Isabelle Day Refuses to Die of a Broken Heart (University of Minnesota Press). Both young adult novels skillfully demonstrate the emotional devastation of suicide and the redeeming power of friendship. McGhee’s (M.A. ’93) book—set in an unnamed present-day town—is told episodically, following Will as he makes sense of his life in the wake of a great loss. St. Anthony’s (B.A. ’73) novel is more conventionally written; U of M alumni will enjoy its Minneapolis setting and many local references.
Speaking of Minnesota, if you’re already missing the North Star State’s summer, pick up a copy of Boathouses of Lake Minnetonka (Big Picture Press), with stunning photographs by Karen Melvin, B.S. ’06. Here you’ll find an eclectic collection of structures—ranging from Japanese follies to miniature Swiss chalets—hugging the shores of the western suburban lake.
Launched by the Minnesota Daily and a shared enthusiasm for old Hollywood, David Fantle, B.A. ’83, and Tom Johnson, B.A. ’83, have compiled a collection of interviews with an impressive range of movie and TV royalty in Hollywood Heyday: 75 Candid Interviews with Golden Age Legends (McFarland & Co. Publishers). Just 18 when they sought interviews with their first celebrities—Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly—the Daily duo went on to talk with dozens of luminaries, including Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, and Debbie Reynolds.
A more contemporary take on media can be found in The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games: Why Gaming Culture is the Worst (University of Minnesota Press) by Christopher A. Paul, Ph.D. ’05. Although his title makes his premise clear, it’s worth noting that Paul is a lifelong video game player himself. His critique then, comes from a place of deep knowledge and enjoyment, making it that much more persuasive.
Lynette Lamb (M.A. '84) is a longtime Twin Cities editor and writer and a regular book reviewer for the Star Tribune.