Sunday, February 20, 2011

Beet by Roger Rosenblatt

Academic novels are among my favorite reads – especially those involving English professors. I measured Beet against my favorites: Straight Man by Richard Russo, The English Major by Jim Harrison, and All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang, and I am happy to say this one measures up! The fun, the politics, the turf wars, the “unusual” students, the bizarre faculty, and the businessmen trying to turn a college into a business are all present in their funny, sad, and tragic glory.

Peace Porterfield is a tenured English professor who cares about only one thing: teaching his students. Rosenblatt writes, “All he knew about being a professor was students, teaching, and learning, and this skewed and narrowed prospect of academic life deprived him of the full, rich picture” (26).

If I listed all my favorite passages, this would be the longest review I have written to date. But here are a few:

“There were more political constituencies on the faculty than professors” (45). “What’s wrong with making a buck? … “Nothing. Unless that’s all you make” (121). “Once money alone drives these [academic] institutions, they’re goners” (126). “He [a fellow faculty member] had a liberal arts education, you had one, I had one. What’s it for, if not to enable us to beat back people whose only values are dollars?” (126). And lastly, really my number one favorite: “Professor Porterfield was just the sort of faculty member he despised, … ‘He keeps to himself. He teaches, talks to students in office hours, and goes home. He doesn’t gossip’” (145).

Chapter Nine was rather poignant. It focuses on Peace as a professor. The chapter begins, “The better teachers at any level possess invention and imagination. These powers are not the same and are not equal. An imaginative teacher is always inventive, but an inventive teacher is not necessarily imaginative” (101). The chapter includes a Socratic dialogue between Peace and his creative writing class.

Irony abounds in this novel, from the fierce feminist student who continually uses “seminal” to characterize her ideas to the name of the English building, Mallory, which is a misspelling of the Sir Thomas Malory, author of the great legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Tons of literary references are spread throughout the book as well. Peace’s wife, Livi, often calls him “Candide,” because of his naiveté and cockeyed optimism. At the end of the novel, Rosenblatt foretells the future for most of the main characters, but he doesn’t know what happened to Peace. “He may have decided to cultivate a garden – not one of his own, but somewhere that had no gardens, and needed them. One simply doesn‘t know what Peace’s future contained. His present was good enough. He took her hand [Livi’s], and they walked together from that place” (225). A free book to the first reader to identify the literary reference contained in the last sentence of this novel!

Students might not find this novel funny, administrators might wince on occasion, but faculty members will howl with laughter. 5 stars.

--Chiron, 2/20/11

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