Just a reminder, friends, if you’re looking for gifts this holiday season, don’t forget Off The Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways. Help your favorite book and travel lover plan the next trip. Order it from IPG Books, Longitude Books or any of your favorite booksellers.
It’s not easy to find Julie Schumacher. Like the setting of her book, Dear Committee Members, winner of the James Thurber Prize for Humor, her office in the English Department at the University of Minnesota seems exiled to a warren of rooms deep in the bowels of Lind Hall on the East Bank campus. Go downstairs, through some doors, down a hall, through the door with the arrow on it and its on the right somewhere at the end of the hall. Leave a trail of breadcrumbs to find your way back.
Also, like her fictional protagonist, Jay Fitger, she’s a creative writing professor and pens scores of letters of reference for students who are applying for jobs and grad school. Dear Committee Members consists solely of such letters in which the arrogant and curmudgeonly Fitger reveals more about himself than his students.
Peppered with a hilariously snooty vocabulary (with phrases like “floculent curds”), his letters perpetually digress to lament his department’s lack of status in the University, the ongoing building repairs and the trials of having an office next to the bathroom. “…we are alternately frozen and nearly smoked, via pestilent fumes, out of our building,” says Fitger. “Between the construction dust and the radiators emitting erratic bursts of steam heat, the intrepid faculty members who have remained in their offices over the winter break are humid with sweat and dusted with ash and resemble two-legged cutlets dredged in flour.” He bemoans the lack of respect for the liberal arts and the struggle of dealing with office technology—topics dear to Schumacher’s heart. Clearly, she follows the old adage “write what you know.”
Yet, when you do arrive at her office, it’s easy to see that Julie Schumacher is no Jay Fitger. She’s downright pleasant, enjoys her colleagues and proudly shows off her former students’ published novels. She swears her letters of reference never wander off, Fitger-like, into completely inappropriate discussions of sexual indiscretions around the department. Finally, unlike poor Jay, her work regularly receives recognition.
She was first woman to win the Thurber Prize in its 18-year history.The award is named for James Thurber, the author of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the creator of numerous New Yorker magazine cover cartoons and one of the foremost American humorists of the 20th century. Previous Thurber Prize winners have included Jon Stewart, David Sedaris and Calvin Trillin.
So many women have written funny books—Tina Fey, Nora Ephron and Betty White to name a few—it’s surprising that a woman hasn’t won the Thurber prize before now. See my previous post about James Thurber. That changed last year when all three of the finalists were women including New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast for her memoir Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and Annabelle Gurwitch for I See You Made an Effort: Compliments, Indignities, and Survival Stories from the Edge.
As the first woman to win, Schumacher recognizes the irony that her lead character is a man. “It never occurred to me to make him a female,” she says. “This character has certain expectations of power, a big ego and he’s crushed when things don’t turn out professionally and romantically. It had to be a guy.”
Schumacher came to this place of distinction through long experience and serious practice of her craft. She grew up in Delaware, graduated from Oberlin College and from Cornell University with an MFA in fiction. She joined the University of Minnesota faculty after teaching as an adjunct at several Minnesota colleges in an effort to “keep an oar in the water” while raising her two daughters. Along the way she published books for young readers, a short story collection, and a critically acclaimed first novel, The Body of Water.
Of Dear Committee Members she says, “I didn’t start out to write a funny book. Actually, it’s a really a sad book. For Jay, things haven’t turned out like he expected, he’s besieged and disappointed. He’s a complicated character. I fell in love with him.”
Her sophisticated style of humor eschews the raunchy (no f-bombs here) in favor of writing that observes the funny in everyday life and in human nature. “The trick,” she says, “is to push the discomfort of a character’s behavior just to the edge, but not too far.” That makes it perfect for an award named after James Thurber. “Humor, he said, is “a kind of emotional chaos told about calmly and quietly in retrospect.”
Schumacher says life today requires humor. “Its a release, a catharsis.” Through her alter ego, Jay Fitger, humor also gives Schumacher a means of serious social commentary. He says, “…there are other faculty here on campus who are not disposed to see notable scholarship ignored; and let it be known that, in the darkened, blood-strewn caverns of our offices, we are hewing our textbooks and keyboards into spears.”
As I assemble my 2016 reading list, book awards are a great way to find books and authors I may not have heard of, with sort of a “best of the year” stamp of approval. I like to blend in few classics, too, especially those Victorian-era novels by authors such as Hardy, Dickens, the Brontes of which I’m a fanatical fan. New on that list for me, the works of Elizabeth Gaskell. (I’m embarrassed to admit I never heard of her until I saw North and South on Netflix.) And, I toss in a little non-fiction for good measure.
Send me your ideas and look for my final list.
Other Contenders for the National Book Award 2015 FictionKaren E. Bender, Refund , Angela Flournoy, The Turner House; Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies; Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
Non Fiction Sally Mann, Hold Still; Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus ; Carla Power, If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship; and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran; Tracy K. Smith, Ordinary Light
Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude ; Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn; Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things ; Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine
Young People’s Literature
Ali Benjamin, The Thing About Jellyfish; Laura Ruby, Bone Gap ; Steve Sheinkin, Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War ; Noelle Stevenson, Nimona
I spent much of yesterday at the Deep Valley Book Festival in Mankato, Minnesota which is part of the Betsy-Tacy Deep Valley Homecoming. I sold a truckload of books—-okay about ten and I swapped one of those with another author for her book. However, I met a lot of local authors working on fascinating topics (fiction and non-fiction), swapped book promotion ideas, and gained lots of inspiration. Best of all, I met one of my favorite local writers, Faith Sullivan, a generous, delightful person and great writer who enthusiastically purchased a copy of my book, Off The Beaten Page. Keep an eye out for her new book, Goodnight, Mr. Wodehouse, coming out this fall from Milkweed Press.
I met a few other authors whose books I have to share with you. Odds are, if you’re not too far away, they’d be happy to stop by your book group to talk about their book. First on my list to read is Nancy Koester’s Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life.
Allen Eskens‘s debut novel, The Life We Bury, is a story of suspense involving a University of Minnesota student, set against the harsh winter of Minnesota. I’ll be settling in for that one this winter.
I also met the bubbly Anne B. Kerr, author of Fujiyama Trays and Oshibori Towels, a memoir of her experiences as a Northwest Orient Airlines stewardess in the 1950s. I pickup of a copy to give to my mother-in-law who was also a flight attendant in that era.
And finally, if you’re a fan of young adult paranormal romance, a very specific category, check out Unclaimed by Laurie Wentzel. Laurie shared book promotion tips and also explained that my college dating life didn’t qualify as paranormal.
Everyone wants to get more out of their vacation dollar and their precious vacation time. And, more than ever, travelers are seeking meaningful experiences that elevate their vacations above the humdrum and typical. That’s why I’m delighted that people who designed Google Field Trip, an app for your smart phone, have chosen offthebeatenpagetravel.com as one of Field Trip’s content providers.
Field Trip runs in the background on your smart phone, grabs your location (via cell tower, Wi-Fi or GPS) and shows you nearby points of interest. When you get close to something significant, it pops up a card with details about the location. Or, you can use the map to navigate to a specific location you’re planning to go and view cards that describe everything there from history to restaurants to bargains in local shops. Cards are grouped into categories and offthebeatenpagetravel.com information appears under “Cool and Unique.” If you have a headset or bluetooth connected, it can even read the information to you, which Slate writer Seth Stevenson said is like “having a museum audio guide for the entire world.”
So, for example, if you’re in Salem, Massachusetts, you’ll see a card linked to this blog with information about The House of Seven Gables, made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Or, in Santa Monica, California, you can learn about how the famous noir crime writer Raymond Chandler gained inspiration in that town and how the famous pier is featured in his work.
I find myself more and more reliant on GPS and Google Maps as I travel because the technology makes it so much easier to find my way around new places, especially while I’m driving. Check out the Field Trip app to find another new way to make your travel easier and more interesting.
Check out the Field Trip video. You’ll want to take off.
Saturday, November 15, 1:30 p.m. “Inkslingers” writers series at Shakopee Public Library 235 Lewis St. S. Shakopee, MN. 55379 952-233-9590
I’ll talk about my book, Off the Beaten Page: The Best Trips for Lit Lovers, Book Clubs and Girls on Getaways and a few of the “how-tos” of literary travel (especially with groups) and a bit about writing and blogging.
Travel to the places you read about. Read about the places you travel.