“The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject.”

dept of speculation coverBooks on Tap read Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill at Champion Brewery on August 2. The novel, short on plot but long on introspection, follows a writer who hopes to be an “art monster” as she marries, has a daughter, teaches writing in college and negotiates her marriage after her husband’s infidelity. Told in short bursts, it has been likened to an x-ray, drawing on the author’s experimentation with poetry during a bout of writer’s block. It starts in close first person, switches to third person after the cheating is discovered and then back to first as the husband and wife reconcile.

We all liked this witty rumination on growing older, knowing oneself and making compromises. Two of us listened to the audiobook and missed all the formatting (and thought we had missed entire chapters!). We didn’t think that the characters were particularly sympathetic but the narrator’s emotions resonated. Her desire not to lose her identity and drive after childbirth and her questioning of priorities accurately reflects life in middle age. However, the point of view is so narrow, it only serves to confirm that you can never truly know what happens in another couple’s relationship. The book contains all aspects of a full life: family, career, loneliness, romance, anger. Its format also mirrors how we communicate now, inward-turning short bursts with (inaccurate?) quotations of famous people. While the ending wasn’t particularly happy, it was happier and happy enough.

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“The only people who have to think about their identity are the ones who don’t fit the mold.”

simon coverThe LGBTQ Book club met at Central on July 31 to discuss the young adult novel Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. Everyone liked the warm coming-of-age story of Simon’s email flirtation with an unknown classmate, his forced outing, and the revelation of the surprise identity of his online crush. The novel is populated with Simon’s family and many, many friends, which are hard to keep track of but all have clearly drawn personalities. The book is lauded for its diverse cast of characters, but this seemed very subtle to us.  We were pleasantly surprised with the support Simon received from his family, friends and teachers, something that would have been unusual in a young adult novel ten years ago. While some of us who grew up in the area thought it rang true, a few of us thought that Simon’s classmates could have be crueler in real life and that Simon was free from any religious shaming.

Simon notices small, physical details about his friends such as the shape of their fingers. However, his primary relationship with Blue is conducted all online, with no physicality. Getting to know each other through email allows each boy to craft what they are saying, making their relationship less awkward and more intimate than it would have been face-to-face. This is mirrored the first time they are intimate, which is hilariously cringe-worthy.

The quotation “straight (and white, for that matter) is the default, and the only people who have to think about their identity are the ones who don’t fit that mold,”  resonated with us. One participant read an interview with the author who explained that the title was a play on the phrase “homosexual agenda.” While we didn’t think that would resonate with today’s teens (and none of us realized it while reading the book), it does position the coming out story as part of the human condition. This is a deeply human story and everyone must struggle with identity, ideally without wounding others along the way.

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Recommendations:
Alex Stranglove (film)
Rise (TV series)

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“The reading and writing of fiction both requires and instills empathy.”

dearBooks on Tap read Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher for the July 5 discussion at Champion Brewery. Not only is it an epistolary novel, it is comprised solely of letters of recommendation from English professor Jason Fitger. Fitger, battling the college’s administration, construction crews, his colleagues, peers and students. Rarely are the letters positive and even more rarely are they effective. However, they are always funny.

Fitger had early success with a roman a clef about his time in high-pressure graduate writing program (The Group) but his later novels were met with poor sales and even poorer reviews. His ex-wife and girlfriend both work on campus and have aligned against him. The English department is a toxic hazard zone due to building construction and has next to no funding, meaning his one promising student may never finish his stunning revision of Bartleby the Scrivener set in a Las Vegas bordello. Against this backdrop of strife, Fitger emerges as a cynical, egotistical man who nonetheless defends the humanities and his best students with all the institutional power he has left.

We were surprised that the book, while gimmicky, was grounded and that Schumacher cleverly developed Fitger’s character and motivation. We all came up with a clear mental image of Fitger or his office and college. She also nailed the intra-department rivalries in academia. She also highlights the ways that liberal arts are losing funding and focus to STEM programs. Fitger defends a brilliant Slavic scholar who has lost his funding by asking “Where else can he go?”. While he rails against the ways that his college, and academia in general, doesn’t support the English department, he doesn’t offer quite enough support to the younger adjuncts who have to string together a career with multiple low-paying postings at multiple colleges.

The novel questions the role of mentorship. Fitger was the favorite of the charismatic leader of The Group and it was under his auspices that Fitger’s first novel was shaped and published. However, this favoritism and the way Fitger portrayed his fellow students in print alienated him from his peers. This alienation has consequences decades later. The women in the group refuse to support Fitger and the most talented member of their cohort cannot get published after retreating from writing due to personal tragedy. Fitger’s own mentorship of his students his suspect, as well. He’ll write almost any one a letter of recommendation, but often these are not actually helpful. Darren, the student he most wants to succeed, seems more like a reflection of Fitger himself.  Darren’s suicide was a plot point we agreed didn’t resonate. Due to its format, the book can only develop Fitger’s character, which meant that this cathartic moment fell flat.

Finally, we discussed aging. Fitger’s self-confidence seems to mask his feeling of failure. His later books were flops and we thought that he doesn’t have another one in him, which did make  his mentorship of Darren bittersweet. His love life doesn’t look like it can recover from its latest self-inflicted wound and has alienated many of his colleagues. In the end, it’s his tenured job and love of humanities that keeps him fighting the good fight via all those letters of recommendation.   

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