Archive for the ‘Academic fiction’ Category

dearI am always on the lookout for academic fiction. I love novels set in English departments and featuring an amusing cast of characters—David Lodge, Michael Malone, James Hynes, Richard Russo, and Jon Hassler are among my favorites. Now I can add Julie Schumacher to the list.

Told as a series of one-sided letters of recommendation, this novel is both funny and poignant. The protagonist, and writer of recommendations, is Jason Fitger, a tenured English professor at Payne, a not so highly rated Midwest university. The letters here are for students, some of whom he has never taught but who are desperate for a recommendation for a job or a fellowship, and for fellow faculty members and college staff.

Fitger’s voice is the only one we hear, and he is in turn cranky, sarcastic, and petulant, but he is also concerned about his students’ well-being and clearly cares deeply for his friends and colleagues, even those with whom he has fallen out over the years. At first the book seems mostly a satire, but as you get into the story, the letters reveal the story of Fitger’s life, his struggles as a writer, and his contention with the human condition. He becomes a character for whom the reader cares, and the end of the novel is both somber and redemptive.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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MagiciansThe comparisons to Harry Potter are inevitable, but when Quentin Coldwater is recruited by Brakebills, a magical university hidden in upstate New York, he’s no wide-eyed eleven year old. Smart, anti-social, competitive, and melancholy, he’s designed his life to please Princeton’s admissions office. He took up performing magic tricks so that he could claim an extracurricular activity without actually having to interact with other people. Then he has one of those through-the-looking-glass, or rather, through-the-back-of-the-wardrobe moments, and finds himself on the grounds of Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, taking an incomprehensibly weird entrance exam. When it turns out there’s real magical talent contributing to his sleight-of-hand, Quentin takes about two minutes to realign his career goals. Magicianship beats his depressing real life any day of the week.

Although I may after all prefer the antics of schoolchildren to those of moody college kids and postgrads—sex, drugs, and nihilism, man, St. Elmo’s Fire with sorcery—I enjoyed Grossman’s easy, clever prose and the details of his invented magic. I particularly loved passages describing the cataloging of Brakesbills’s books, which bring an entirely new meaning to the phrase “mobile library:”

“… in which the books fluttered from shelf to shelf like birds, reorganizing themselves spontaneously under their own power in response to searches… enormous atlases soaring around the place like condors….The librarian had imagined he could summon a given book to perch on his hand just by shouting out its call number, but in actuality they were just too willful, and some were actively predatory.”

Sometimes charming, sometimes quite dark, it isn’t always clear whether this is a love letter to children’s fantasy or its shocking exposé. From Quidditch to Ents, devoted fantasy readers will enjoy the allusions to the literature of their childhood, and in particular to Narnia (“Fillory” is its thinly-disguised counterpart in the novel), where life is somehow truer and more meaningful and schoolboys become kings. But Quentin’s attempts to find love and fathom meaning in his life just do not get any simpler from one magical world to the next. A fantasy novel about whether you should make fantasy worlds your refuge, it has more in common with Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem of Susan” than with Hogwarts.

Check the WRL catalog for The Magicians.

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lodge2If you enjoy sharp-witted and sometimes dark-edged novels about academia, you probably are familiar with the writer David Lodge. In his novels Small World, Changing Places, and Thinks, among others, Lodge has skewered the pretensions of academics and pointed out the petty jealousies and rivalries that can exist in the most staid of university departments. Lodge finds a lot of humor in these settings, much of it fairly biting satire. In his latest book though, Lodge moves back and forth between his usual acerbic satire and a more gentle and affectionate humor.

Deaf Sentence tells the story of retired university professor of linguistics Desmond Bates, who is gradually losing his hearing. He increasingly finds himself nodding in agreement when he is not sure what he is agreeing to, which causes an occasional social faux pas at parties. He finds that this habit causes more problems for him when he inadvertently agrees to assist a comely American graduate student on her dissertation on the linguistics of suicide notes. Unlike much academic fiction, where this action would lead to a torrid but unhappy affair and the dissolution of Bates’s marriage, here Bates avoids the usual trap and manages to dissociate himself from an increasingly disturbing relationship.

At the same time he is dealing with his own hearing loss, which for a man who has devoted his professional life to the sound of language is doubly disturbing, Bates also find himself increasingly responsible for his aging and ailing father. The relationship between the two is not easy, but Lodge captures the underlying affection between the two that forms a bond that is not easily shaken.

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They say, whoever “they” are, that good things come in threes. In the world of fiction, good things often come in trilogies, but they also come in fours, fives, or even greater numbers. This week, we’ll look at books in series that give readers the chance to enjoy characters over the course of three, or more, books.

We’ll begin with Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. Davies is known for his elegant writing style and his wonderful characters. He does not disappoint in this series starter. Rebel Angels is the first novel in Davies’s Cornish Trilogy, followed by What’s Bred in the Bone and The Lyre of Orpheus. Here, Francis Cornish, a collector of manuscripts and paintings and a promoter of Canadian artists, dies. Three competing scholars, professors at the College of St. John and the Holy Spirit, are named executors of his estate, along with Cornish’s nephew, banker Arthur Cornish. A Rabelais manuscript in the collections goes missing; the professors compete for the attentions of the beautiful and gifted graduate student Maria Theotoky; and much of the plot turns on the return to the college of the disgraced scholar and former monk, John Parlabane. Who would think medieval literature, gnostic religion, and details of gypsy violin making could be this much fun? Sharp tongues and eccentric behavior abound in another excellent novel from one of Canada’s great authors.

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Davies’s The Lyre of Orpheus is the final book in the Cornish Trilogy, whose first and third books are set in and around the life of students and scholars at a fictional university in Canada. Davies has an obvious affection for academics, but he also is unsparing in his portrayal of the petty jealousies and departmental feuds that seem to be a constant part of the academic life.

In this concluding title in the series, music graduate student Hulda Schnakenburg is finishing her studies by completing an unfinished opera by the noted composer E.T.A. Hoffman. The story follows her struggles to find the right voice to finish the project, and Davies has an excellent sense for writing about music and musicians (see his essay collection Happy Alchemy: On the Pleasures of Music and the Theatre). A parallel story, that is equally enjoyable, tells of the efforts to mount a professional production of the completed work. Davies’s time as an actor adds an air of verisimilitude to these parts of the novel. Finally, overlooking all of these efforts and telling bits of his own story, is the spirit of Hoffman himself. Condemned to limbo for leaving his earthly work undone, Hoffman’s hope is that Hulda’s recreation of his opera on the Arthurian legend will be his release.

Readers interested in music and theater will find much to enjoy in this delightful tale for one of Canada’s finest writers. While The Lyre of Orpheus can be read on its on, the story is even richer if you start at the beginning with The Rebel Angels.

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Writing about the other fine arts is one of the most challenging things to pull off. Whether it is music, painting, or dance, it is difficult to capture on the page the subtleties that make these arts so appealing to listeners and viewers. That being said, there are some writers who do manage to convey either the feelings that the piece puts out for the viewer/listener or the experience of actually creating music or fine art.

This week, we’ll look at some fiction and nonfiction writing about music. These authors all give the reader a strong sense of the intricacies and pleasures of music, from classical to jazz to traditional.

Jon Hassler’s Rookery Blues is set at the fictional Rookery State College, located in Minnesota. The school is an isolated place, so far north that, in the late sixties setting of the story, most of the students are only there to get draft deferments, while the instructors are misfits who can’t get jobs anywhere else. This book centers on five of those instructors who join together to play jazz in the Icejam Quintet. Hassler understands the pleasures that can be derived from playing music with others, and conveys that pleasure in clear, sharp prose. He also has a sense of how important it is for musicians to listen to one another, and of the cacophony that arises when someone stops listening.

Hassler cares about each of his eccentric characters, and as they briefly come together to play music, their lives become fuller and richer. But ultimately, the differences between the band members prove too great, and at the end the quintet has fallen apart. Hassler followed this book with a sequel, The Dean’s List.

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Rookery Blues

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For the second entry in my week of humor books, I’m going to do something very stupid. I am going to recommend a book that I have never, ever, ever* been able to get anyone to read. The one person who tried gave up in disgust after a few pages. There is nothing to suggest that my luck is about to change. This is a completely futile, useless blog entry.

*Okay, one exception: I did get Mom to read it, but that doesn’t count. She’s obligated to read the books I suggest. She’s the one what made me watch musicals growing up. It’s payback time.

(For the record, she loved the book.)

The book that you won’t be reading on my recommendation is Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith. That’s the same chappie who gave us The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, a fine series in its own right, though nothing at all like Portuguese Irregular Verbs.

PIV is the finest example of academic humor I’ve read, apart from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (“Thank God for the twentieth century!”), which is in a humor class all to itself.

The best part of the book is its protagonist, Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, whose magnum opus was the academic text Portuguese Irregular Verbs, which ought to tell you everything you need to know about him right there. He’s a prissy college professor. No one actually likes him, but the great part—what gives the books its humor—is that he’s clueless. He thinks himself a great man and an academic giant, when in fact he’s a grade-A twerp. The professor’s unerring ability to delude himself is what makes the story so funny. Mix that with the sardonic subtext of university humor, and you’ve got yourself a great story.

I would note that PIV is a novella and the first in a series, but since none of you are going to read it anyway, nevermind.

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I love those Golden Age mysteries! I particularly love Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series because she combines the Classic mystery story with a level of character development you do not generally see with Christie or Allingham. Sayers was ahead of her time, with the kind of complexity of personal relationships and empathy with the wrongdoers that one sees nowadays in P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh or Deborah Crombie’s Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. At the same time, she purely entertains with her depiction of the English aristocratic life between World Wars, allowing Wimsey to display a sometimes Woosterian buffoonery that charms while obviously masking deeper emotional complications. Intelligent and literate readers will be attracted by the erudite Sayers’ liberal interspersion of literary quotations throughout her books (the rest of us will simply feel like blockheads until the actual story continues).

Gaudy Night belongs primarily to Harriet Vane. Wimsey was introduced to Harriet Vane in Strong Poison, wherein Harriet, a mystery author, was being tried for the murder of her lover. Upon first seeing her in the dock, Wimsey was convinced that she was innocent and, against all odds, proved it. During the ensuing five years leading up to Gaudy Night, Wimsey has been patiently proposing marriage to Harriet on a regular basis, with equally regular rejections. The relationship between Peter and Harriet is a delightful development in this series, and it all comes to a head in Gaudy Night.

As mentioned, Gaudy Night really belongs to Harriet. She gets reacquainted with Shrewsbury Women’s College at Oxford (where Sayers herself was educated) after attending her college reunion. During her visit, she is asked by the Dean of the College to investigate a series of cruel and disturbing pranks that have taken place on campus. The dons of the college are anxious to avoid a scandal, as the existence of the all-female College – still considered by many to be a modern experiment – is tenuous. With her background of mystery writing and insider status at the College, Vane is the best hope for solving the mystery quietly and discreetly. Wimsey, of course, appears for the resolution, as we all hope he will.

I had a good guess “whodunit” about two thirds of the way through, but the “why” and “how” were still elusive until nearer the end. At any rate, the exposition of the crime, and the resolution of the Peter/Harriet relationship, were well worth waiting for.

Sayers died in 1957, leaving her Wimsey/Vane mystery Thrones, Dominations (begun in 1938) only partially completed. Mystery author Jill Paton Walsh completed it in 1998, with very satisfactory results. Walsh wrote her own complete Wimsey/Vane mystery in 2003, Presumption of Death.

Note: I adore listening to Sayers’ mysteries on tape or CD. Most of them are narrated by Ian Carmichael, who also portrayed Wimsey in the BBC Lord Peter Wimsey miniseries. Read ‘em first though! Much better that way, what?

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James Hynes is a master of the macabre, and in The Lecturer’s Tale he turns his eye on the English Department at a large Midwestern University. Nelson Humboldt’s promising career as a professor has faded away, and he is reduced to teaching composition classes to the dregs of the English Department. Even here, Humboldt is a failure though, and his department head, Victoria Victorinix, lets Nelson know that he is no longer needed. Just after his ignominious dismissal, Humboldt loses his right index finger in a freak bicycle accident. When the finger is re-attached, he discovers that with one touch of the finger, which channels his anger, he can control a person’s behavior. He uses his new power, first to regain his position, then to get vengeance on his colleagues. Nelson’s abuse of power, however, is not without consequences. The story climaxes in a over the top scene in the tower of the university library that changes both Humboldt’s future and the face of the school. No trend in contemporary English theory is spared Hynes’s withering glance, and much of the humor in the book comes from the spotlight Hynes turns on academic pretensions, Hynes provides fascinating blend of horror, literary references, and satire.

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