Wednesday, September 7, 2011

5 Best Books: Academia

5 Best Books is the weekly meme hosted by Cassandra at INDIE READER HOUSTON. Each week there's a new topic and 5 book picks to talk about. This week it's books set in, around or having anything to do with Academia. Okay, here we go.

1) STRAIGHT MAN by Richard Russo

I can't do any better than the description used on Russo's fantastic fiction website page, so here it is:

During one tortuous week, Hank Devereaux, head of the English department at the state university in Railton, Pennsylvania, has his nose slashed by a feminist poet, finds his secretary is a better writer than he is, suspects his wife is having an affair, threatens wild fowl, and confronts his father.

A funny book. I am a major fan of Richard Russo. STRAIGHT MAN is one of the reasons why.

2)  QUIETER THAN SLEEP A Modern Mystery of Emily Dickinson by Joanne Dobson

The first entry in a mystery series set at a small private college in New England. Assistant English professor Karen Pellietier confronts academic mayhem when the dead body of a another professor falls out of a closet and into her arms. This is certainly no way to earn tenure. Somehow she is soon caught up in helping the police when the poetry of Emily Dickinson appears to have something to do with the murder. A terrific series which makes the most of academic chicanery. Check this link to see the list of other books in the Karen Pelletier series.

3)  THE GRASSHOPPER KING by Jordan Ellenberg

Yes, I know, I talk about this book every chance I get. But here, I have no choice but to bring it up again since most of the book takes place at or near Chandler State University a center for mediocre intellectualism. Chandler's one claim to fame is its Department of Gravinics dedicated to the study of the language, mythology and history of a small all but forgotten country set in the Carpathian foothills. That country's claim to fame is a dead (?) English expatriate poet named Henderson. Professor Stanley Higgs who heads the Department of Gravinics, is a world renown expert on Hendersons obscure poetry since he'd discovered a stash of Henderson's work (in the garbage) while traveling in Berlin.

Unfortunately, academic super star Higgs hasn't spoken in 13 years, which makes his lectures somewhat difficult. When Samuel Grapearbor joins Chandler's Ph.D. program, he is put in charge of Progessor Higgs. Samuel, while working on the difficult translations of Henderson's poetry,  must check in at the Higgs house every day and spend hours observing, waiting for the checker-playing Professor to make any kind of utterance. To that end Higg's entire house is rigged with tape recorders - just in case.

For my money, THE GRASSHOPPER KING is a brilliant satire of academia, marriage, the rewards of eccentricity, bad poetry and the general quirkiness of life.. The book is chock full of wry observation and absurd situations (often deadpan hilarious) as well as some pretty gorgeous writing.

4)  CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS by Agatha Christie

Maybe the first murder at Meadowbanks, the prestigious and very exclusive boarding school for girls from the finest families in Europe, doesn't mean the end of the school, but the second and third murders certainly do. Or do they? Can the resourceful Meadowbank staff save the day? Will Hercule Poirot catch a ruthless killer in time? What do you think? One of my very favorite Christie books.

5) VILLAGE SCHOOL by Miss Read

A gentle, affecting story - the first in a series (sort of, they can each be read as separate books also), set in the English country village of Fairacre. This is perfect reading anytime, but especially for when life has frazzled you. Written in the 1950's, Miss Read has the ability to make the most mundane things seem interesting. I guarantee that the day to day existence of this charming village and its small school will take you away to a time when life seemed very much simpler and people lived very different lives.


  1. I would have to add some of the David Lodge books about academia. Trading Places for one. And the mysteries of Amanda Cross (Carolyn Heilrun). Especially the first few.

  2. So noted, Patti. I'm not big on reading mysteries set in academia. These are the few I could remember.
    But I do like my five books very much.

  3. These all sound like such fun! I think my favorite academia book is Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.

  4. I picked Straight Man too! Love that book.

    Here's mine:

  5. Lauren: I'm not familiar with Kingsley Amis's work. Shame on me.

  6. I am a major fan of Richard Russo, Bev. I've read just about everything of his except his short stories. A really wonderful writer.

  7. Quieter than Sleep seems very interesting. Another book on my wishlist.

  8. Yvette, I'm especially intrigued by THE GRASSHOPPER KIND and QUIETER THAN SLEEP. The latter particularly tickled me with this line of yours: "This is certainly no way to earn tenure." Now if only I could manage to carve out as much time to read as to write, I'd be the happiest girl in Puppetland! :-) Enjoyed your reviews, as always!

  9. Yvette: Gail Bowen has a wonderful series featuring Saskatchewan university professor, Joanne Kilbourn, solving crimes. Most of the series are not focused on the academic world but involve university.

  10. I would have to add The Secret History by Donna Tartt and The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. I will have to check some of these others out.

  11. neer: Oh, it's a good series. This is the first and might get you reading the rest. You never know. :)

  12. Dorian: Thanks, kiddo. Two books that could not be more different from each other but both worth reading. Especially THE GRASSHOPPER KING. One of my favorite books ever. :)

    Though all on this list are excellent.

    Dorian, did you catch my review of HOMECOMING, my overlooked film starring Clark Gable and Lana Turner? Just wonderin'...

  13. Bill, I'll certainly take a look at Gail Bowen's work. Her name is going on my TBR list. Thanks for the tip.

  14. Ryan: Haven't read the Donna Tartt, but THE HISTORIAN I wasn't so crazy about. I need to take a second look at THE HISTORIAN one of these days. Everyone else in the world seems to love this book.

  15. I haven't read many novels set in academia, possibly because I've spent many years on campus and am looking for a change of scenery when I pick up a novel.

    However, one of my favorites is a great mystery by a great writer, Batya Gur: _Literary Murder_, is a police procedural, in which a murder on a college campus is investigated. It's set in contemporary Jerusalem.

    While reading the novel, I kept waiting for references to faculty members I knew at the University of Arizona.

    Would _Possession_ by A. S. Byatt fit in here? It does involve the type of research common to academia. I did enjoy reading that.

  16. Fred: I've never read any mysteries by Batya Gur, though I've heard very good things about him over the years. I'm adding his name and the book title to my list.

    I didn't read POSSESSION, but I saw the film and liked it quite enough. (Even if I am not normally a fan of Gwynneth Paltrow.) Yes, I think it should be included. :)

  17. Michael Chabon's WONDER BOYS is one of my favorite books about academia. It certainly reflected something very close to my college experience. I'm of the same generation as Chabon so it was a fairly personal read.

    As for vintage mysteries with academic settings here are some excellent examples: CLOSE QUARTERS by Micheal Gilbert, the books of V.C. Clinton-Baddeley, A QUESTION OF PROOF by Nicholas Blake.

  18. John: Thanks, John, for adding to the list. Not familiar with any of the books you mention, though I did read Chabon's THE ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY and loved it.

    Oh wait, I know Nicholas Blake's work. I read one of his books. Daniel Day Lewis's father.

  19. Great choice of books, a nice variety. The Miss Read book makes me think of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Similar atmosphere, or very different?

  20. That's an interesting selection - esp. the Agatha Christie. I never think about hr having anything to do with academia! I've added STRAIGHT MAN by Richard Russo to my wish list. I read one Russo eyars ago and really enjoyed it but then forgot about him. I'd like to read another.

  21. leeswammes: No, not at all like Miss Jean Brodie. A quieter more gentle take on school days in the country.

  22. Juxtabook: Richard Russo is one of the very few literary type authors I read. I love his work.

    I highly recommend STRAIGHT MAN and also, EMPIRE FALLS though FALLS has nothing to do with Academia. It did wiln the Pulitzer, though.

    I also loved MOHAWK and NOBODY'S FOOL.

    Thanks for dropping by. :)

  23. Yvette,

    I think you would enjoy her novels. She does considerable research for background, so her settings, at least to me, are convincing. Gur's mysteries have been set in academia (already mentioned), a psychiatric outpatient institute, an orchestra, a kibbutz, etc. Unfortunately she died early, at age 57, in 2005. She had written six mysteries.

    The first paragraph from The New York Times Obituary:

    "Batya Gur, a writer and critic almost single-handedly responsible for making the detective novel a flourishing genre in Israeli letters, died on May 19 in Jerusalem. She was 57 and lived in Jerusalem."

    I never saw the film version of Possession. For some reason, I was not interested.

  24. Yvette,

    Just remembered a series by Edmund Crispin, featuring "Gervase Fen, Oxford professor and sometime super-sleuth, a expert at solving cases that baffle even the most astute policemen."

    Quotation taken from the back cover blurb. I've read a number of them, and they are fun. They are probably out-of-print but can be found in used bookstores and online.

  25. Fred: Thanks for the added info on Batya Gur. She is on my active list. 57 is way too young to die, for sure. What a shame.

    I am familiar with the Gervase Fen books, Fred. I recently read and wrote about THE MOVING TOYSHOP and THE CASE OF THE GILDED FLY. I'd meant to add them to my list but got sidetracked. They are definitely wonderful books.

  26. BTW - Reading POSSESSION by A. S. Byatt is a completely different experience than watching the movie. Movies based on books that are mostly about WRITING never really work for me. The fascination was in actually reading the passages of the two poets. Quite a tour de force for Byatt.

    I don't think of THE SECRET HISTORY as a book about academia. It happens to be about college students but the story is more about their relationships with each other and their perverted secret society. The college setting is incidental and there's no real talk about the lives of professors or how they relate to the students which I think is the crux of an academic novel.

  27. I'll get around to reading Byatt one of these days, John. Just haven't up until now. It was not a great movie, just an interesting one. The two actors who played the poets were both wonderful. But yes, books about writers are generally much better than movies about writers. No argument there.

    I haven't read THE SECRET HISTORY, so don't have an opinion one way or the other.

    Funny thing is, that by your criteria, Christie's CAT AMONG THE PIGEONS definitely qualifies. :)


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