Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Academic Magic. Book One, by Becky R Jones

A great good evening to all my friends and neighbors in Internet Land! And to family members who have dropped by, DON’T PANIC! Yes, the LIBRARY is closed, but there are still lots of things to read online.

The cover art, and an Amazon Associates link. Click it, buy something, and I get a referral fee.

Zoe O’Brien, Ph.D., is a relatively new hire in the history department at Summerfield College, a smallish liberal arts institution located in metro Philadelphia. As such, she has the standard concerns of junior faculty everywhere: committee assignments (boring, tedious); teaching freshman level survey courses (boring, tedious); cranking out research papers (varies); living without tenure (moderately terrifying, in a diffuse sense); no romantic life (although that one guy is cute); caring for two obnoxious and demanding (but I am redundant) cats; hallucinating squirrel behavior (disturbing).

That last bit is new, and it is occurring exactly in the same manner as the other items don’t. Everything else is simply a slightly accelerated and enhanced (as in the cats) version of her life as a graduate student. Not the squirrels! Not only does she see them sitting in a circle, but one of them persists in waving at her. 
If only she didn’t have obligations! She could just leave, or check into an asylum, or something. However, she had not been able to resist buying a house near the school; thus, she is tied down. A bit. So, she resists engaging the squirrels, and she DEFINITELY resists talking to her colleagues about it.

Zoe is not ignorant of strange events (and she is no stranger to ignorant events), at least not of  historical strange events. Her concentration in Medieval European history gave her a strong foundation in the types of behaviors termed magical, as well as the reaction of surrounding societies. However, scholarly skepticism and a modern view of Life, The Universe, and Everything gave her confidence that what one age termed "witchcraft" was simply…something else. Her confidence already shaken by what she THINKS she saw, she is further challenged by the conviction of her closest friend Mark, and his husband David, that just because the belief is medieval, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Thus, when she discovers two squirrels waiting for her when she goes to work the next day, she braves the unknown, and speaks politely to them. And they return the courtesy, and make arrangements to meet with her, in her office. 
This is unbelievable! NONE of the squirrels I have experience with have EVER shown consideration for office hours!

I’m not going to tell you that her cats talk to her that evening, but her cats talk to her that evening.

All of this inter-species communication has a point: there is something that feels nasty about the main administration building, and the squirrels need her help. And so they come to a junior member of the faculty, non-tenured, and ask her to speak to her department head, and mentor, on their behalf; a person who will certainly have a significant role to play on whether she is offered a tenured position. So, she pulls out a double-barreled shotgun, and blasts them both into Squirrel Heaven, figuring that a firearms charge will have less impact on her future than interceding for tree rats with a senior faculty member
(No, she doesn’t do that. This story has no shotguns.)

What it does have is a lovely fantasy, spread over a very true-to-life depiction of a college campus. This happens to be something I know about, having worked in higher education for over seven years. Jones is spot-on with her descriptions of mind-numbing committee meetings and office politics. I think I may have even worked with one or more of the characters she describes. Thus, the story has a special charm for me.
Even those who haven’t spent much time in the ivory towers can find much to appreciate about this tale of an intelligent young prof, confronted by the impossible. Her conversations with her cats alone make it worth the read. Add in wicked witches, winos, wise wizards, and a whining woman-parent, and the alliteration will take you home.

Peace be on your household.

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