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Archive for the ‘Academic fiction’ Category

lodgeI last wrote about David Lodge in 2009 when I reviewed his novel Deaf Sentence. Looking around in a bookstore recently I came across a new edition that collects my three favorite Lodge novels of academia. So with college graduations so recently in mind these seemed like a great summer reading opportunity. The Campus Trilogy, collects Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work, which are three of the funniest and most pointed satires of campus and academic life I have ever read.

Changing Places introduces the reader to Morris Zapp, all-star American professor in the English Department of the State University of Euphoria in California and to Phillip Swallow, a somewhat less successful professor at the University of Rummidge, in England. The two are part of an exchange programs and as we meet them, they are on passing flights over the Atlantic, heading for a six-month teaching position at each others’ campus. The campus turmoil of 1969 affords Lodge a lot of targets for satire, and he makes the most of them. But it is not all barbs. There is a lot of humor here that is not pointed and sharp, and the responses of both Zapp and Swallow to their new situations raise some interesting questions about the human condition.

Lodge followed this novel with Small World, a raucous novel set at a variety of literature conferences, and featuring many of the characters from Changing Places. Zapp and Swallow are back, as are their wives, and a host of new, and equally superb, characters from English departments around the world. Lodge is playing with romance and the Grail legend here, as one of the main story lines follows the romantic aspirations of Persse McGarrigle, a poet and lecturer at the fictional Limerick University, Ireland. Despite the complex plot and almost Russian-novel cast of characters, Lodge pulls all the strings together at the end with all the main characters attending the annual Modern Language Association conference in New York.

The final novel in the series, Nice Work, is more of a stand-alone work, though it is set at the University of Rummidge, where Swallow is heading up the English Department, and Morris Zapp does make an appearance. Here, Lodge takes a narrower focus though, following the lives of Victor Wilcox, Managing Director at a local engineering firm, and Rummidge U. professor Robyn Penrose, a feminist scholar, who is assigned to shadow Wilcox as part of a university project to better understand the commercial world. Lodge wields a gentler pen here, though there the satire is still amply present. The novel does raise questions about how we talk to each other, and what the role of the university is in the modern world, a debate that continues to be timely in this ear of budget cuts and calls for more oversight of colleges and universities.

All together, Lodge’s three novels make a delightful, humorous, and thoughtful summer reading opportunity.

Check the WRL catalog for The Campus Trilogy

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tarloffWhat is it about higher education that makes it such a fat and funny target for skewering?  Is it the seemingly arbitrary power professors have over their students? The increasing definition of a specialty, so that to earn a PhD you have to know everything about nothing at all  (“In/Signification and Dys/Lexicography: A (Mis)Reading of Nabokov’s Ada“)? The cloistered atmosphere, where according to Sayre’s Law, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low”?  I don’t know, but take all those elements, stir them into a small town Baptist college, throw in an identity crisis and pornography, and you’ve got The Man Who Wrote the Book.

Ezra Gordon is the hapless hero of the tale, a poet without the means to make his ends meet.  He hasn’t written in years, much less published; he was charged in a sexual harassment action and had to answer to his girlfriend, the college’s attorney, who also happens to be the daughter of a college trustee who really doesn’t like Ezra.  With most of the students, the department chair, his tenure committee, his landlady, maybe even his girlfriend – wherever Ezra goes, he’s the most unpopular guy in the room.

He does have one friend, Isaac Schwimmer, who lives in LA, so Ezra goes to stay with him for spring break.  Isaac left the world of academia for the considerably lower-stress world of publishing, even breaking in with his own imprint.  Ezra, of course, has no idea what Isaac publishes, and when he walks into Isaac’s high rise “lives of the rich and famous” condo, meets his beautiful, brainy, and willing neighbors, and crashes in a guest bedroom bigger than his apartment, he gets curious.

It turns out that there has to be someone who publishes pornographic novels, and Isaac happens to be one of the most successful in the crowd.  That success has also given Isaac tons of self-confidence, which he generously tries to share with the beaten-down Ezra.  He also makes Ezra a business proposition – write me a porn book and I’ll pay you $10,000.  To his own surprise, Ezra accepts, and returns to campus with a little secret and a great big grin. (Did I mention the willing neighbor?)

The secret of writing a throwaway piece of smut fires Ezra’s imagination, and before he knows it the manuscript for Every Inch a Lady is in the mail, and the book is in print.  To Ezra’s (and Isaac’s) surprise, it takes off in ways neither can imagine.  Plus, finishing it gives Ezra the nerve to tell off his old girlfriend, show off his new one, tick off an FBI agent investigating cybercrime, help a student find his way, and finally, contemplate writing his own novel under his own name.  Ezra’s journey becomes a comic take on the erotic journey of his heroine, picking up momentum along the way.

Tarloff also wrote for M*A*S*H, All in the Family, and The Bob Newhart Show, and still writes for Slate, The Atlantic, and The American Prospect. He’s married to economist Laura D’Andrea Tyson, which is where I guess he got his exposure to academic politics.  In The Man Who Wrote the Book, he scores with vicious and illuminating satire (is that a tautology?), and makes Ezra’s growth from immature schlub to confident adult fun. The lone downside of the book is its relationship to technology – does anyone even publish porn on paper anymore? Would many readers remember the days of computer access limited to dial-up campus networks? The upside is, well, everything else.

Check the WRL catalog for The Man Who Wrote the Book

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rosieUnreliable narrator? Check. Quirky characters? Check. Fish-out-of-water? Check. Funny scenes? Check. The Rosie Project manages to push all these buttons, plus add a semi-sweet love story, a bit of a mystery and some academic humor. No wonder it’s been a surprise international hit for debut author Graeme Simsion.

Don Tillman is a genius geneticist, the kind who makes other genius geneticists (and geniuses of all other specialties) look like…well, like me. Part of his success is an ability to focus on the work at hand; part of it is an eidetic memory; part is a determination to win at anything he turns a hand to. But those qualities also add up to an inflexible loner, probably with Asperger’s Syndrome and no idea why he never has a second date.

Stymied by women who smoke, who are never on time, who eat apricot ice cream, are adamant vegetarians, or show any conflicting values, Don decides he’s going to weed out those who are demonstrably unsuited for him. His method? A 16-page questionnaire covering every conceivable idiosyncrasy that might affect his ability to be around that person.

One of Don’s test subjects is Rosie Jarman, a barmaid, smoker, chronically late, pretty and opinionated young woman.  Obviously not a match for Don on any count. However, she presents him with a puzzle he cannot resist—the opportunity to collect DNA from a limited but scattered population to find her natural father. The technical part is easy, but he’s intrigued by the difficulty of finding the subjects. Thus begins the Rosie Project.

Simsion perfectly captures the interior voice of a man with Asperger’s, and in multiple comedic scenes demonstrates why Don doesn’t get along with those who are conditioned to follow social conventions (as he sees it), or those who have learned to interpret the myriad of clues that lubricate social interaction (as everyone else sees it). The Apricot Ice Cream Disaster, the Jacket Man Incident, the Pig Trotter’s Disaster, the Flounder Incident, the Bianca Disaster, the Aspie Lecture—all point to Don’s seeming inability to function in public. But gradually, and in small ways, Don learns to look for and interpret, and finally to empathize with, distasteful human emotions.

If this sounds like a formula Hollywood script, it’s because it started as one (a script, that is), but Simsion realized that dialogue alone wasn’t enough to portray Don without making him an object of ridicule. The result of his move to the novel form is a romantic comedy with depth and original characters, and an unsympathetic narrator we quickly come to cheer for. It comes across initially as a light read, but I think readers will remember Don Tillman for quite a while.

Check the WRL catalog for The Rosie Project.

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Character is at the center of all of Michael Malone’s books, and his academic novel Foolscap is no exception. Theo Ryan, son of semi-famous singers, teaches English (what is it about English departments that attract the attention of fiction writers?) at a small college in North Carolina. Here, a fascinating cast of characters surrounds him, including a Marxist English professor who insists on having a pool in his university-supplied house.

As so often happens in a Malone story, Theo leads a fairly normal existence until his life takes a sharp turn when he meets Joshua “Ford” Rexford, a hard drinking, womanizing, Pulitzer-winning playwright. Theo is working on Rexford’s biography, and trying to keep Rexford alive despite his propensity for alcohol and fast driving. But Rexford betrays Theo’s trust, fleeing from North Carolina to England with one of Theo’s graduate students and the only copy of a play that Theo has written. Theo breaks out of his staid existence as he pursues Rexford, gets his play back, and achieves a reconciliation of sorts with the playwright.

Theo’s play, written as if by Sir Walter Raleigh near the time of his execution, raises fascinating questions about the artistic voice. What does an artist do if his inner vision compels him to work in an earlier style? Can a contemporary painter use the techniques and narrative tools of the Old Masters in the 21st century without being dismissed as derivative or a slavish copier? Malone excels at the picaresque, and Theo’s adventures in forgery, negotiating with publishers, and tracking down the errant playwright all bring both laughter and tears. But it is this blend of humor and deeper questions about what it means to be a creative artist that gives Foolscap its enduring grace.

Check the WRL catalog for Foolscap

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Richard Russo is a writer whose affection for his characters and whose blend of compassion and humor draw me in on every reading. Russo populates all of his stories with people whom you would like to know, and there are no stereotypes here. Each person is fully realized and the humanness of the characters is reflected in their flaws as well as their strengths.

I am always interested in fiction set in the academic world.  Russo sets his academic novel Straight Man at a fictional state university, in this case in rural Pennsylvania. Hank Devereaux has taken the reins as Chair of the English Department, and finds himself at odds with both his friends and his enemies over proposed budget cuts that it is believed will require layoffs. Everyone thinks that Hank has created a list of who will get a pink slip.

Fortunately, Hank is a man of cheerful disposition, perhaps too much so. His colleagues, superiors, and friends all accuse him of not taking life seriously enough, and Hank’s lack of seriousness gets him in trouble when in a fit of inspired lunacy he threatens to kill a goose at the campus pond if the English Department budget is not approved.

Straight Man is filled with laugh-out-loud moments. But it also is a touching portrayal of Hank’s coming to terms with difficult aspects of his life— his failure to write a follow up to a successful first novel; his chilly relationship with his distant father, an academic superstar; the loss of passion in his own marriage; and his growing old. Like all of Russo’s books, Straight Man is filled with interesting and fully realized characters. Hank’s colleagues, the students, and the townsfolk are all lovingly portrayed, and it is this skill at developing characters that brings me back to Russo time and again.

Check the WRL catalog for Straight Man

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My daughter started college this week, and I start teaching a class for Catholic University’s graduate program in Library Science next week. So, I find myself thinking of books about school and academics. There are a lot of fascinating works of fiction set in academia. They are often funny, satiric, and thoughtful in equal measure. Here are some of my favorites.

Other favorites? Add them in the comments.

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high-spiritsAlthough we generally associate ghost stories with Halloween and October, there is a long tradition in Great Britain of telling ghost stories around the Christmas season. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a classic example, with Scrooge being haunted by spirits who offer him one last chance to see the error of his ways. Robertson Davies served for 18 years as Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto. During that time, he wrote and presented a ghost story each year at the Massey College Christmas Gaudy, or college party.

Many of Davies’ novels reflect his interest in the supernatural. Murther and Walking Spirits, is narrated by a dead man and the shade of composer E.T.A. Hoffmann has a central role in The Lyre of Orpheus. The stories here all reveal ghostly encounters that Davies supposedly had at Massey. In the spirit of traditional tales of Christmas hauntings, the stories move easily between humor and horror. Massey was a new college, and Davies, a traditionalist in many ways, its first Master. As such, many of the stories he relates were intended, as Davies said in his introduction, “to stave off that most dreadful of modern ailments, the Rational Rickets.” Nothing becomes a college like a good ghost story or two that lends an air of antiquity and elegance to the place.

The stories here definitely fall on the more humorous side of the ghost story genre, and reflect Davies’ interest in books, Canadian history, royalty, the lives of the saints, and the occasional fine cigar. While perhaps not as frightening, or even serious, as many stories of the supernatural, High Spirits, evinces an English sensibility moderated by a brisk North America air. These are fun stories, and would benefit, as do many ghost stories, from being read out loud among friends.

Check the WRL catalog for High Spirits

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