Reading in Transit: Jana Riess and Julie Schumacher

Context (or Chatter)

I spend more time writing than reading, these days — too little of both — and I read online more than I read printed books. But if you read this blog, you probably don’t need me to tell you there’s a charm in holding the book in your hands and turning actual pages instead of staring at a screen. Also, actual books have a far longer battery life.

I’m in Bloomington, Indiana, just now, traveling with a family member who has an audition today at Indiana University’s sprawling, beautiful campus (which must be simply gorgeous when it’s green). I spent lots of hours in and between airports yesterday. Much of that time I spent reading actual books, and it was delightful.

On a similar trip to Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, I found Authors Bookstore, a charming airport bookstore at Minneapolis-St. Paul, and bought a very promising, shortish novel which claims to a national bestseller. I’m not disputing that; its renown is sufficiently compatible with my never having heard of it before. I started reading it then and finished it yesterday.

Authors Bookstore at MSP
A little bibliophile Mecca at MSP

Then I finished a book I picked up almost on a whim in Salt Lake City a few months ago and starting reading on the warm, sunny commuter train (and platform) at the end of workdays. It was excellent too, and the fact that I read the second half of it only yesterday doesn’t disparage its charms at all. I do that with books, even very fine books.

And yes, I’d be pleased to tell you more. Thanks for asking.

Such Letters As I Have Never Written

Julie Schumacher’s  Dear Committee Members is the novel I found on the local shelf at the bookstore at MSP — local because this fellow Cornellian is on the faculty at the University of Minnesota. If I call it an epistolary novel, do you promise not to think of something as stodgy as the word epistolary?

It’s a novel of letters — hilarious, insightful, finely-crafted letters of recommendation from the fictional Dr. Jason Fitger of the fictional and undistinguished Payne University, somewhere in the Midwest. He teaches literature and creative writing, and he is perpetually recommending students to graduate programs, writing retreats, editors and agents, and so forth. He recommends colleagues for awards, administrative positions, and employment elsewhere.

Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members

By now you think I was kidding when I said, don’t think it’s stodgy. But I’m not. I’ve done my time in academia (and mostly loved it), and I’ve written many letters of recommendation there and elsewhere, in which I’ve tried both to be candid and to lavish praise upon the deserving. Professor Fitger does plenty of that. But he also laces his letters with his own thoughts on other subjects, such as the plight of less-funded departments in academe. He writes with far more candor than some of his recommendees (my browser thinks that’s not a word) would appreciate; and with considerably more art than one finds in my recommendations, despite the modicum of pride I take in them.

And he’s not just recommending them within their common field. He’s recommending them for menial jobs they need to survive until they can get a job in their field, and for work in other fields, when they can’t.

Each letter is a gem, but together they tell a colorful, multifaceted tale. They develop several compelling characters and themes — especially himself, of which more below.

Here are some teasers.

He tries to get his students jobs at the campus radio station (“Browles is not just a cut above the usual palaverers and symposiarchs of the airwaves; he’s three cuts above”), an RV park (correcting a misused apostrophe in the business’s name, I am pleased to report), a (ahem) nut house where the junior employee is required to dress as a human cashew (“Please do hire him; I wish him episodes of glorious, sun-washed tedium and a loss of innocence he will contemplate for the rest of his life”), and a liquor store. (“Comely and articulate, Mr. Geng is prone to dreamy non sequiturs that have endeared him to his peers. I predict that the young women will flock to your store in the hopes of hearing him decipher the labels on Chilean and Argentinean wine.”)

He recommends a student for a job at a grocery store with these words, after describing the grisly short story for which he gave said student a B:

Mr. Lesczynski 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.

Whether punctuality and an enthusiasm for flesh-eating cephalopods are the main attributes of the ideal Wexler employee I have no idea, but Mr. Leszczynski is an affable young man, reliable in his habits, and reasonably bright.

You might start him off in produce, rather than seafood or meats.

To his new department chair, a stranger hired from outside the department and the field:

You’ve asked me to write a letter seconding the nomination of Franklin Kentrell for Payne’s coveted Davidson Chair. I assume Kentrell is behind this request; no sane person would nominate a man whose only recent publications consist of personal genealogical material and who wears visible sock garters in class — all he lacks is a white tin basin to resemble a nineteenth-century barber.

But if you want me to endorse his nomination in order to keep him quiet and away from your office (you will find him as persistent and maddening as a fly), you may excerpt the following sentences and affix my name to them: “Professor Franklin Kentrell has a singular mind and a unique approach to the discipline. He is sui generis. The Davidson Chair has never seen his like before.”

He ends a medical school recommendation:

I recommend Ms. Zelles to you with all the usual accolades these letters are expected to provide.

Yours in the underfunded wing of campus,
Jay Fitger, Professor of Creative Writing and English
Author
Provocateur

The next letter recommends the same Ms. Zelles to his ex-wife, for admission to Payne’s law school.

As we smile at his lexicon, beam at clever turns of phrase, and laugh aloud at letter after outrageous letter, we begin to see causes and effects, as well as a clearer picture of the good professor’s past and present. Sometimes the consequences are obvious, as when he tells a small college to which his ex-girlfriend has applied that she is too good for them, describing in the process certain aspects of their three-year relationship that one probably ought not include in a letter of recommendation. Later he writes to her,

You probably heard that I’ve been thoroughly scolded for the LOR I wrote as part of your application . . . ; once again, I’m sorry. . . . If you’d applied to a school that deserved you, I would have written something more appropriately laudatory and banal. . . . I do hope you’ll forgive me because I’m in desperate need of a favor. I have one remaining graduate student who . . .

You could read this novel just for the artful snark, if you enjoy that sort of thing. (I do. I never said I was perfect.) But you should read it for delicious language and the good professor’s heart and mind instead. Try as he might to conceal himself behind a high-caliber curmudgeon’s wit, he proves to be a thinker, teacher, advocate, and friend.

He tries to find a struggling secretary a better job. He pleads for help for students with mental or economic challenges, going far out of his way to try to help them succeed. He mourns the loss of an old friend with whom he had mostly lost touch. And near the end he grieves when something awful happens to someone for whose welfare he has fought.

Dear Committee Members may or may not be your cup of tea. It is definitely my glass of gourmet root beer. But I couldn’t have read it while sipping root beer. That stuff’s painful, when it comes out your nose.

To Flunk the Class, You Must Be in the Class

The book I began to read on Salt Lake Central’s southbound Frontrunner platform, then finished on a Southwest 737 somewhere over Arizona, was Jana Riess’s Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor.

Jana Riess, Flunking Sainthood

Ms. Riess is a delightful writer, in her wit, her power to turn a phrase, and the depth of her insight. And don’t get the idea that she’s spending her year as a religious scofflaw. She’s actually trying to get closer to God, and what she learns along the way is not trivial.

It probably is transferable.

Each month for a year, she explores a different religious practice from outside her own religious tradition — praying like a Catholic, observing the Sabbath like a Jew, and exploring fasting, generosity, gratitude, and more.

In pondering how to give you the flavor of the book, I am drawn first to author Doug Pagitt’s back-cover blurb:

Jana Riess calls us to something greater than spiritual success — ordinary faithfulness. Flunking Sainthood is the book I’m giving to my friends who are seeking to make sense of their emerging faith.

(My personal thought: Our churches are full of people — not just new converts, but many of the long-faithful too — who are seeking to make sense of their emerging faith.)

I am drawn also to her Epilogue, which is more serious than the rest of the book, because of an event which provides context for her summarizing reflections.

Although I didn’t see it while I was doing the practices themselves or even while I was writing the chapters in this book, the power of spiritual practice is that it forges you stealthily, as you entertain angels unawares.

. . .

The life of the spirit is one lived for others. My dad, on the other hand, lived opposed to this principle. . . . I’m sure that God has forgiven my dad, and I can write with honesty that I have forgiven him too. But I don’t want my world to be like his.

. . .

Fasting helped to teach me that this body and this life are not all there is, that there is a life of the spirit beyond food and health and the hundreds of bottles of vitamins we cleared out of Dad’s apartment. . . . God is infinite; this life is a proverbial drop in the bucket; we are but dust. Fasting is a potent bodily reminder of these things.

. . .

When we truly keep the Sabbath, God can mold us into the kind of people who don’t make an idol out of work, which is a particular temptation for me and perhaps a lot of other Americans. . . . Your schedule is all very well, these practices say. But you have to be prepared to drop everything for God, for others, for death. . . . [The Sabbath is] an enforced weekly shutdown of all our pretensions.

. . .

If I had it all to do over again, I would allow for more time. . . . I was also an idiot for trying so much of this by myself rather than in a community. . . . There’s a particular kind of hubris in the DIY approach I took to all these spiritual practices, most of which weren’t intended to be tried alone.

And if I did it all again, I would try to stop practicing charity from a distance. One of my greatest failures this year was my careful refusal to get involved. In September, my hospitality was practiced primarily on people I already knew; in December, my generosity was expended on people I would never know. Both were easier, far easier, than welcoming the stranger. But it’s the act of loving that marks the true saint.

. . .

I’ve often heard the maxim that “good is the enemy of perfect.” . . . I’ve learned the reverse is true: perfect is the enemy of good.

You could read these excerpts and think you now have most of the benefit of the book, without going to the trouble to read it. You don’t. To think that would be to miss the crucial point that the journey matters enormously. In this book’s case, the journey is delightful and hilarious (unlike these excerpts), not just profound.

Above that, however, I recommend this book for the disciple’s higher purpose of trying to learn what she learned — not just learning about what she learned.

Because what we are matters more than what we know, and knowing God is a higher goal and a higher state than knowing about him.

Simply Good Books
Authors Bookstore at MSP — irresistible section

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