Tuesday, August 10, 2010

No Academic Magic

The novel, That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo, has a rather disturbing portrait of an academic couple who spend years wallowing in bitterness because they ended up with faculty positions at a large state university in the Midwest instead of at a more prestigious private university on their beloved East Coast. If an Ivy League faculty position was not possible, they would have settled for a small elite private college on the East Coast. But it was not to be.

Betrayed. That was how they felt. Why go to Cornell, to Yale, if Indiana was your reward?

Of course the novel is a bit over-the-top in a Russoesque way, and this grotesque couple are supposed to inspire contempt. They are also apparently lousy parents, although that's kind of complicated.

In real life, a possible reaction to this faculty couple's situation of getting jobs together at a good university, especially at a time when faculty couples were more rare than they are today, is: Great! They got jobs in the same place! Lucky!

In fact, at one point they both had separate offers at small private East Coast colleges, but not together, and they decide to stay together, at least at the time of their other job offers. Is that a touching portrait of choosing love over career? Maybe this acrimonious couple is more complex than the way they are portrayed in the book, primarily by their son?

It's interesting that this fictional couple initially tries to make the best of it in Indiana. They

..hunker down and .. dove into teaching and research and committee work, hoping to bolster their vitae so that when the academic winds changed they'd be ready.

That's kind of commendable, despite the unsavory aspects of constantly striving to leave a place they view as inferior.

Ultimately, though, these characters are loathsome. Part of what makes them so bitter is that the academic winds never do change for them, although they work extremely hard and even reinvent themselves. One of the more offensive parts of this parody of academics is when the woman in the academic couple delves into gender-studies and semi-pretends to be a lesbian because she thinks it is in the interest of her career to do so, gender-studies apparently consisting mostly of lesbians. According to the main character (the son of the bitter couple), academic lesbians are "a grim, angry, humorless lot", although he meets some fun ones at a wedding.

I am a big Russo fan, but there is much to dislike in this portrayal of academics, and women of all sorts.

The absolute worst book I have read this summer, bar none (academic or not), is Commencement. It seems like it has been a while since I read a good novel involving a college campus or academic people (faculty, students, or staff). It has been particularly long since I read one with academic characters who were likable, despite the fact that academia is populated with very likable people (says me).

Has anyone read any recent academic novels (even if academia is not the focal point) that they would recommend? Perhaps the one that has come closest to being entertaining in my recent reads is Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz, although I soon wearied of the soliloquies by the beleaguered, misunderstood, and emotionally stunted (Ivy League) admissions officer.

I have one more trip before the start of the academic year, and would welcome suggestions for another book to bring along in addition to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, one of my all-time absolute favorite authors whose new book I have been looking forward to reading as an end-of-summer treat.

37 comments:

Anonymous said...

I really liked "My Latest Grievance", which is set at a small New England liberal arts college. It's by Elinor Lipman, who also wrote "The Pursuit of Alice Thrift", about a med student.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the book yet, but I recently watched the movie "A Single Man" directed by Tom Ford, starring Colin Firth as a closeted gay English professor at UCLA grieving the loss of his lover. I thought it was quite good, and so now I'm planning to read the novel (same name as the movie) by Christopher Isherwood. I hope you get some good suggestions; I have also felt let down by my summer reading this month.

A Life Long Scholar said...

I consider _The Name of the Wind_ to be an academic novel, even though its fictional setting academic world is nothing like modern academia. Likewise _The Fall of the Kings_ focuses on a fictional academia that is both like and unlike the modern world's version. It would be interesting to hear your reactions to either or bother of these books.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I am a big Russo fan, but there is much to dislike in this portrayal of academics, and women of all sorts.

I don't understand this conclusion at all. You describe pretty vividly that the academic couple who was portrayed were, themselves, repugnant. But you haven't said a single word about what there is to dislike about their portrayal by the author, or to cause you to be disappointed in the author. Plenty of awesome books have been written about fucken douchebags, and many people find it a lot more fun to read about douchebags than about "nice" characters.

Anonymous said...

I recommend Rebecca Goldstein's 2009 novel "36 arguments for the existence of god" for a combination of likable and not likable academic characters, very funny portrayal of academia, and an overall warmth of human spirit that I find missing from Russo's novels.

Anonymous said...

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova, is a quick, but surprisingly deep, look at what happens to an academic and her family after a diagnosis with early onset Alzheimer's. It was engaging, poignant and I could not put it down. I will say that if you choose to bring this with you travelling, bring an additional book as you will probably not want to attend conference sessions in order to finish this book and thus will need something else to occupy your 'free time'!

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I liked Intuition by Allegra Goodman, although both the supposed villain and heroine are, now that I think of it, quite annoying. I mostly liked it because it described cancer research in the 80s, although I can't speak to its accuracy.

Anonymous said...

Although it is not about university professors, Harry Potter offers insight to the role high school professors at a private magical institution have on developing witches and wizards.

Maggie said...

Have you read "Moo" by Jane Smiley?

kimu said...

I love Mitchell and I enjoy stories about Japan, but I'm having a very hard time getting into Thousand Autumns. I'm about 25% into it and I'm still waiting for something interesting to happen - much slower pace than his previous work.

Anonymous said...

Sorry that I can't suggest a book with a direct academic connection, but I am currently reading "The Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver, and think its the best of her many great books. It does have many writers and artists as central characters, both real (Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera) and fictional (the author and people he calls things like "The Important Angry Poet"). It also has a nice portrayal of a horrific military prep school.

Mark P

jheaton said...

I assume you've read Russo's other treatment of academia, Straight Man. If not, definietly give it a try. It's my favorite of his books, and the English professor protagonist is much more sympathetic than the parents in That Old Cape Magic.

I also enjoyed Susan Coll's Acceptance.

Anonymous said...

Let me second Maggie's recommendation of Jane Smiley's "Moo", which is simply great. It's extremely funny, and poignant, and in the end is something of a love letter to the great midwestern state universities.

Female Science Professor said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I have read Moo, 36 Arguments, Intuition, but will look into all the non-Harry Potter suggestions.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

_Still Alice_ is a good book, but a warning: if you have dealt with a family member or friend with dementia, it may be hard to deal with. Or, who knows, you may enjoy the feeling of having company.

Anonymous said...

You could try "A Live Coal in the Sea" by Madeleine L'Engle. The book starts off with the main character (a retiring female astronomy professor) receiving an award from her college for a lifetime of scholarly achievement. There are definitely some negatively portrayed academics (one in particular), but a lot of the book takes place in an academic setting and portrays academics quite favorably overall.

Anonymous said...

David Lodge has many great books on life in academia. The one I like the best is called "Thinks".

Anonymous said...

I think I mentioned this in a similar past post of yours, but I recently finished "The Bubble Chamber" by S.C.H. Thurston

It's set in scientific academia and is a fairly quick and fun read. Some of the people are caricatures, but it does have an interesting and slightly bitter take on the different worlds of faculty who came of scientific age decades ago and the reality of life for current grad students working with them.

The book definitely could have used a harsher editor to trim some sections and some of the characters could have been better formed, but, all-in-all, I recommend it.

Female Science Professor said...

My post was not intended as a comprehensive book review (I actually thought the book overall was OK and am glad I read it). I chose to focus on the specific topic of the portrayal of the academic couple.

I have read Moo, Straight Man, Thinks (and other David Lodge books). I hope I will not be disappointed by the new David Mitchell book, but now I am emotionally prepared for this possibility. Thanks again for all the comments.

The Lesser Half said...

If you went to Harvard, MIT, or Boston University (or you like to make fun of any of those places), I recommend "The Big U" by Neal Stephenson.

The more extreme view of academia (loosely speaking) can be found in one of his other books "Anathem".

R.L. said...

I quite enjoyed this post. And now I feel compelled to read that book. By the way, what was the name of the title of the last book in which you found the academic characters likeable?

Female Science Professor said...

I read and did not like The Big U. My favorite academic novels are the classics: Straight Man, Moo. Can I also count White Noise? I loved White Noise.

Plague of Crickets said...

If you haven't already read it, you might try Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (1925). It's been a long time since I've read the book, but back when I was a larval biologist, I thought it was fantastic. Some have claimed that it's the first significant novel about the process and culture of science. (Lewis was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the book, but famously turned it down.)

Susan B. Anthony said...

Second The Lacuna -- not strictly academic, but a wonderful, amazing, epic story.

I am re-reading A. S. Byatt's Possession and enjoying it immensely, as always. It's also not strictly about the academy, but it is about literature and the excitement of primary (literary) research. And there are lots of gleefully portrayed academic characters of various sorts.

I'm enjoying the other suggestions and will definitely try some of them!

Anonymous said...

Funny but a little harsh: the Wilt books by Tom Sharpe.

Anonymous said...

"My Freshman Year" was a quick, easy ready. Some of her perspectives from the student's point of view were interesting to try to remember if that is how I felt.

Anonymous said...

I second Arrowsmith. It's amazing how much remains the same since the 1920s when he wrote this book.

Mark P

Female Science Professor said...

Read Arrowsmith.

Anonymous said...

For a witty view of the non-academic side of the academic world, you could try 'The Ask' by Sam Lipsyte; a satiric take on life as a university-based fund-raiser or 'academic development officer'.

Female Science Professor said...

I liked The Ask!

Amy S said...

I enjoyed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob very much. It's much more narratively straightforward than his earlier work, but there are some wonderful characters. One commenter called it slow, and in the beginning, the parts on the island are - but to be fair, they are stuck on an island waiting for the next trade season!

What about Zadie Smith - on Beauty.

Also, I read the Tom Woolfe book set on a campus (don't recall the name) and I did NOT like it. He does not write a 18 year old girl well.

Susan B. Anthony said...

@Amy S: That was I Am Charlotte Simmons. It was very macho and I disliked it as well. NOT recommended.

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone has mentioned Academia Nuts by Michael Wilding.

Anonymous said...

As a Smithie I hated "Commencement".

K McCain said...

I have three suggestions. The first two are books I assign in a class about women and science. Intuition by Allegra Goodman (which has already been suggested) and Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes. Easter Island weaves together stories of two women studying the island several generations apart.

Finall, my favorite academic novel, in which the characters are very real and sympathetic, is Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner.

PimpMyNovel said...

Learning Curves by Dorie LaRue

http://www.amazon.com/Learning-Curves-Novel-Academe-1/dp/1460982908/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1308958717&sr=1-3

Daisy said...

My all-time favorite: "Secret history", by Dona Tartt. It is not exactly new, and not only an academic novel in the sense that you use this term, but it does depict university life and student-professor relationships in a fascinating way (although there might not be enough faculty meetings to your taste... )
Also, "Special topics in calamity physics", by Marisha Pessl, that describes (among other things) the relationship between a teenage girl and her academic father. Not sure that it is relatable, but definitely highly entertaining (which is also the idea, right?)
And now, have a good day, and enjoy your readings (whatever they are)!