Audio Books for Impromptu Road Trips

This weekend, events have conspired to send me off on an impromptu road trip. Sure, I had to figure out last minute concerns like my route, what to bring, where I’ll stay, and that’s all plenty difficult to figure out at the last minute, but that’s not what concerns me first. The question I focus on first and foremost is just what I’m bringing to read on this trip. Well, actually, for a road trip the question is more often just what book I’m bringing to listen to? Audio books are a must for long days when your eyes have to stay on the road. If you’re alone, the disembodied voice telling you a story might be the only thing keeping you company, maybe even the only thing keeping you awake if you need to do some good old late night driving.

Luckily for me, I already consider having a good audio book handy an essential part of driving around everyday. Sure, anyone can have a favorite book, but I’ve got favorite audio books.  Sometimes the narrator truly gives life to a story, sometimes the recordings are very well produced and/or composed in an intriguing way. I’m here to list some of my own favorite audio books as ideas for your next road trip. With these books keeping you company, you definitely won’t go mad with highyway hypnosis.

The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero

This is actually a pretty recent addition to my list of favorite audio books. It chronicles the making of The Room, perhaps the most famously bad movie of all time. I found out about the movie The Disaster Artist starring James Franco and his boys, (Seth Rogen, Dave Franco, etc.) after seeing the trailer online and I soon also discovered that, like all good movies, it was based off a book. I jumped to find it that book.

Turns out the book was written by Greg Sestero, the actor who played Mark in the Room, (Oh, hai Mark!) and had the closest relationship with Tommy Wiseau, the enigmatic disaster artist himself. Sestero reads the story himself, showing off an amazing Tommy Wiseau impression that he probably had time to perfect after know the man for so many years. The story as a whole is so compelling, humorous and strange, and Sestero, contrary to what his performance in The Room might make you believe, is a talented enough actor to make the story come alive in his recording. Check out this audio book not just if you have a road trip coming up, but also if you’re interested in the movie inspired by it.

Word War Z by Max Brooks

This audio book is probably one of the most impressive productions of all time. The book itself follows the stories of multiple people across the world as they describe how they survived the zombie apocalypse. Max Brooks has a certain level of access to Hollywood and show business that many other writers do not because his dad is in fact Mel Brooks, the actor.

Many audio books with multiple character POVs hire multiple voice actors to read different parts. No other audio books that I know of, though, got the likes of Nathan Fillion, Simon Pegg, Mark Hamill, and even Martin Scorsese to record different character parts. While the terrible Brad Pitt movie almost put me off that story entirely, these names and more drew me towards the audio book. I gave it a try and did not come away disappointed. I actually couldn’t even tell for certain when actors I knew were on or not, because so many people used accents or created personas. This wasn’t some cheap, star-powered grab for attention. This recording showed lots of talented effort in bringing the zombie apocalypse to your ears. If sci-fi and horror are your thing, give this one a try, even if you thought the movie was terrible, especially if you thought the movie was terrible.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Okay, so I kind of want to recommend every single Gaiman audio book ever produced but, because that would take way to long, I’ll recommend one of his more recent ones that makes for a great audio book. Gaiman reads many of his books himself, and his voice alone could be the main selling point for any recording. Listening to him speak, you can tell he’s not merely a masterful writer, but a masterful storyteller as well.

Technically, Gaiman did not originally write any of the material for this book. These are his takes on classic myths from Norse mythology, with Thor, Loki, Odin and the like. Since each of these myths has been told and retold through the ages, Gaiman’s effort definitely doesn’t come off as an appropriation or retreading old ground. Gaiman’s clearly using his own voice to add his own twist to the stories and pass them down in his own special way, an effect that expands when you listen to Gaiman tell the story himself. You’ll feel like a viking reading for story time around the hearth, or whatever vikings had. Bonfires? Cooking pits? iPhones? Well, something warm and glowing anyway.

Well, those are three of my favorite audio books that can keep you company on your next road trip. If you’re looking for more great audio books, check out Audio Publisher’s Association’s Audie Rewards, which highlight some of the best audio books from year to year. You’ll definitely recognize some names from this entry if you look. There’s loads of brilliant listens out there, so don’t ever feel like you have to travel alone again.

Lying About Ruth Ware’s the Lying Game

Alright, so even though I’ve told just about everyone I know how much I love Ruth Ware, even though I’ve already blogged about how she’s one of the most amazing thriller/mystery writers I know, I did not find out that Ruth Ware had a new book coming out, The Lying Game, until I saw it on shelves in the bookstores.

As it stands, I’m scrambling to get a copy and am absolutely unprepared to review a new book by one of my favorite writers. Hold on though, I’m not gonna let that stop me! The very answer to my current dilemma is in the book’s title itself. I’ll have to play the so-called Lying Game.

The book is called the Lying game because, according to blurb on the jacket flap, the group of grown women featured in the story used to play this “Lying Game” when they were younger, specifically it seemed they all just tried to tell ridiculous lies and back each other up until someone’s about to call them on it, then they bail. Sounds like a silly, annoying children’s game that could perhaps echo the novel’s plot with perilous symbolic significance, something reminiscent both of Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott, the adults embroiled in dark, treacherous plots mirrored by the dangerous mischief young girls can get into. At least, that’s what it sounds like, from the summaries I’ve read. Sounded pretty good though, didn’t I? You thought I read the book for second even, maybe? That’s because I’m playing the Lying Game! Or am I?

Yup, I actually did the book, totally. Of course I knew it was coming out. Ware’s like, my favorite author. What kind of fan would I be, not knowing when her new book’s coming out? My favorite part? Well, not to give away any spoiler or anything, but I really admired the extended chase scene through the circus and carnival fairgrounds. I thought it might come off as too vaudevillian, but concluding it with the discovery of that triple suicide pact on top of that imposing cliff-side definitely saved it. Oh don’t worry, that’s barely a spoiler. This all happens in the first couple chapters or so. What a way to open the book!

The middle bit sagged. I think that  slack was due to all the extended conversations in Russian that the writer refused to translate in the text. Huge chunks of the plot were lost on me that way, because Google translate can only help so much. I suppose you have to admire her commitment to a creative choice, but I did feel the choice was just a bit too avant garde, dare I say even bizarre, compared to Ware’s other books, especially since all her characters were supposed  to be British, and it’s never even  mentioned where they picked up Russian in the first place, or maybe they did, in the Russian bits. Like I said. That part was lost me.

Yeah, I thought naming the main villain Angelina Jolie was a bit presumptuous. We get it, you already have the movie deal all planned out. No need to make it so obvious, Ruth! Still, though, the ending definitely redeemed that character in the most unusual way. Again, no spoilers, but I hope more thrillers incorporate baby pandas escaping perilous situations into their big finales. Such fluffiness!

Is any of what I just wrote true? Maybe… maybe not… I’ll never tell. Looks like you’ll have to read The Lying Game to find out. Then, and only then, will I be victorious because, you see, I was never playing to win the Lying Game at all. No sir, I was playing the Get As Many People as Possible to Read the Brilliant Ruth Ware’s New Book Game. Gotcha!

Or did I?

Heads Up! Turtles All the Way Down

John Green hasn’t published a book since his last bestseller, The Fault in Our Stars, which came out five years ago. Saying that actually makes me feel kind of old. I’m no long the hip, young, YA target audience his books are written for, only a decrepit twenty-something. Still, when I heard Green finally announce his new book, Turtles All the Way Down, would be released on October 10th, my ears perked up and I have to tell you, I have every intention of reading it, regardless of my age.

John Green’s also taking the interesting step, similar to what he’s done for past books, of signing hundreds of thousands of first edition copies before this new book’s release. I don’t know why the man is so determined to kill the market for his autograph, but he’s going at it with all his heart, which I suppose I admire. Signed and unsigned copies are both available for pre-order. Consider this a call to pre-order a signed copy if you like, or else just keep this book on your radar. It looks promising.

Of course, I’ve been a long time John Green fan, so my judgment is far from objective, but, at the same time, I know more of his story.  Whereas some people will see this as a writer coming out of seclusion after many years of inactivity, I don’t. I follow John’s vlogbrothers videos, his podcast, and other online shenanigans. I know full well that John Green was doing plenty during his five year absence from the writing game, including having another kid, starting a podcast, and overseeing the millions of other projects he does yearly. I haven’t strictly missed him, so to speak, but I have missed reading his work.

Green’s discussed the upcoming book in many of his recent vlogbrothers videos, promising a book that deals with mental illness and the strange, terrifying paradox of not being in charge of your own thoughts, something he’s admitted is extremely personal to him, as a sufferer of OCD. You can’t really writing about the big questions you have in your own life, I suppose. Many of John Green’s previous books were informed by his past. His first book, Looking for Alaska, was heavily biographical, and his time as a chaplain at a children’s hospital played a part in inspiring The Fault in Our Stars, in addition to his friendship with Esther Earl, a young girl who died of cancer by the time the book came out. These past influences lead to great books before, so why not this time around to?

If we’re going to talk about autobiographical aspects of stories, I will say myself that I’m interested in the themes and conflict Green features in his book, as I’ve had problems with anxiety disorders before, and been caught in the same, fear induced death spiral trying to figure out what’s taken over my brain, usually in the dead of night when I should’ve been sleeping. A well written story exploring that subject would be at the the top of my recommendation list for many other reasons besides how much I love the writer. I don’t know if I’ll be leaping after one of the thousands of signed copies, but I’m definitely excited to give everyone a heads about this upcoming new release.

Monstress Vol. 2, Not too Late to Start a Brilliant Series

I picked up the first volume of graphic novel series Monstress, written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda, while ago and was definitely impressed with the beautiful art and fantastic fantasy world building. I had one of those happy, unexpected catches in my chest when I recently saw the second volume out, and immediately bought it. While I’d forgotten some of the more intricate parts of the storyline, as often happens when I read insanely detailed fantasy world-based series, I still got sucked back into the storyline immediately. Monstress Vol. 2: The Blood is a stellar expansion that left me even further addicted to a series that I already found intriguing.

The Monstress series takes place in a largely matriarchal, steampunk era Asia, with different magically charged societies vying for power. We have the Cumea, witches, human women with great magical prowess and skills leading a purely human society in trying to take over and subjugate Arcanics, human and magical ancient being cross breeds. Arcanics can range from full on animals in humanoid form to humans with, say fox ears and tails, or even no noticeable Arcanic identifiers at all. Protagonist Maika Halfwolf must navigate this richly developed world stuck in the throws of conflict as she tries to figure out what to do with an ancient power her late mother thrust upon her.

That ancient power is actually an ancient being, a strange-eyed tentacle monster that definitely echoes the Lovecraftian ancient ones as well as the Japanese influence informing much of the stories mythology and illustration. Yes, the art incorporates opulent Japanese elements on top of steampunk style and decadent, Lovecraftian horror. Does that sound like too much? Well, for me, it was an excess of all my favorite aesthetics, and reviewers definitely agree the effect is fantastic. Each panel feels rich with a magical, antiquated, and sometimes sinister level of detail. This is a series  you can enjoy by casually flipping through the pages, letting the strange and wonderful atmosphere conjured up by the story wash over you in passing.

Getting into the nitty gritty of the story too, though is just as rewarding as glancing at the amazing art, not something that can be said too often today, mostly thanks to Hollywood movies I suppose. Books lifting the heavy weight again, as per usual. Maika must try and resolve her relationship with an already deceased and far from perfect mother, while also grappling for control over the dark, blood thirsty entity that lives inside her. That intimately explored internal conflict set against the amazing back drop of such a fascinating world makes every part of Monstress feel absolutely full to the brim of something you’d be lucky to find even a sip of elsewhere.

There’s also the amazing diversity of the characters in the story, and I’m not just talking about the variety of furries walking around. Main character Maika Halfwolf has only one arm, (remember when I complained last week about how hard it is to find a story featuring a disabled person just last week?) Numerous people of different skin tones appear, fighting that fantasy trope of monogamous racial cultures, where magic and dragons can be real, but a brown hobbit cannot. Just reminding myself that the society is matriarchal is a sort of giddy feeling, every time I read it. I think in my head, “oh wow, this comic does a great job of including so many different women in positions of power,” then remember “oh, duh, because that’s how they designed the societal structure. It would be weird if they weren’t all female.” Is this what straight white men feel like all the time? Oh wow, it’s amazing, so roomy, liberating! The world is my oyster! I feel compelled to make some immaturely aggressive comments about a man’s place on twitter now!

So yes, I very much want to live in the world Liu and Takeda created for Monstress, even with the wars and ancient tentacle-god monsters. I cannot, unfortunately, so I’ll just wait for the next book to come out, and the next, cherishing every glimpse into this fantastical world and story. I recommend you do the same, my friend.

The My Life Our Books Reading Challenge

Summer is, for me, a time full of reading challenges. I’ve got more time to read in the summer, and library summer reading programs challenge you to read more books than that one retired couple who always claim the biggest prizes at the end of the summer award ceremony. Curse you, pensioners with all your free time! Some reading challenges, though, last longer than just the summer and can be found online too. I myself am nearly finished with POPSUGAR’s reading challenge, which I started at the beginning of the year.

Trying to tick off all the boxes in POPSUGAR’s reading challenge has been a really enlightening adventure. It showed me what I do and do not read, not just my obvious likes and dislikes I mean, but what books I could pick up in the first place. For example, I had to work really hard to find a book by or about a person with a disability, but found yet another WWII era mystery/adventure and checked off that “set during wartime” box pretty easily. I learned partially about my own reading habits, yes, but even more about what books are or are not readily available to me and other readers.

To encourage this kind of exploration, I’ve decided to invent my own reading challenge right now, something to round out the rest of my summer and widen the scope of books I keep an eye out for. Hopefully you might join my too. With this list, I tried to make sure the books could still be fun, enjoyable reads while also showing how difficult, and therefore arguably more important it can be to find books created by and for voices outside your specific circle.

So, without further ado, I present:

The My Life Our Books Reading Challenge Book List:

  1. A book of poetry by someone from a different country than you
  2. A book someone has been recommending to you for ages that you just haven’t gotten around to yet, shame on you!
  3. A non-superhero comic book or graphic novel
  4. A dog book where the dog does not die in the end. (Good luck even finding that one.)
  5. A book with a woman of color as the protagonist.
  6. A book you found at your local library.
  7. A book featuring a healthy and well-developed same-sex relationship. (no burying of any gays!)
  8. A book exploring political views different from your own.
  9. A bestselling poetry book by a poet you’ve never read before.
  10. A book set during a war other than WWII (That cuts out like, over half the war books  ever written, I’m pretty sure.)
  11. A book about and/or set in a time and place you know little about
  12. Your mom or dad’s favorite book. (or whoever raised you.)
  13. A book set in Central and/or South America.
  14. A book by a “famous” person whom you’ve never heard of. (I’m looking at you, guy from the cast of Glee who apparently writes children’s books now.)
  15. A book that made you cry as a kid, or at least made you notably sad, if you were too stone cold for tears as a young’un.
  16. A book translated from another language.
  17. A book about or set in a place you want to visit one day.
  18. A book either featuring a religion different from your own. (Let’s say atheism and agnosticism count as religions.)
  19. A bestselling children’s picture book
  20. Your old favorite. See, I can end on an easy one.

I hope this list gave you some ideas about books you should try, even if you don’t feel like taking a reading challenge. Challenging yourself to read even a few books you never would’ve thought to try before is, to me, the most valuable thing you can take away from a reading challenge.

If your interest is piqued, here’s a great article with a list of even more reading challenges to try. Let me know in the comments if you’ve tried anything like this before, or want to.

Scribbled in the Dark: Humble Title for a Quality Poetry Collection

So there were a couple reasons I picked up Charles Simic’s  (pronounced Simich due to his Serbian roots,) book of poems Scribbled in the Dark. The “Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet” subtitle’s usually a good sign, and of course we have the cute little cover featuring a charming illustration of an old man feeding pigeons.

Perhaps what drew me the most, before I cracked it open and saw the quality poetry inside of course, was the amusing image conjured up by the title. Oh crap, my new collection is due at my editor’s in an hour, what do I do? (sees pile of scribbled on post-it notes by bedside,) Okay, I can make this work. I’m Pulitzer Prize holding former poet laureate, right? That’s is like poet tenure. I could teach a class in just my underwear and they wouldn’t fire me.

In all seriousness, I connected with Simic’s work, and his chosen title. It’s a very humble name for sure, and I found that refreshing an laid back, not at all like the many pretentious efforts I’ve seen that think themselves superior because they’ve mastered superfluous line breaks and swallowing most of the page with blank space. I remember tutoring too many high school students in English, and groaning as they try to impress their teacher on the poetry assignment by

stretching

out

 

the

 

 

lines and

 

white

 

 

space.

 

They may have also been trying to meet a page requirement. Some seemed like they just wanted to finish the assignment and figured this looked long and poetic enough, and some seemed to think they were exercising their legitimate poetic prowess. Even today, whenever I see a poet relying heavily on line breaks and blank spaces, I think back to my agonizing days as a peer tutor and get a phantom headache. Still, there are poets that know how to use these traits well, and Simic shows he’s one of those artists with this collection, and maybe also all those awards listed in his bio, too.

These pieces are a study in how to actually use brevity and open page space superbly, not just to play at looking poetic.  This whole collection’s clearly grown from the concept hinted at in the title. No, not a last minute idea for the editor, but a so many small little phantoms floating onto the page from a pen, freely in the darkness. See? I only just read Simic and now I’m all waxing poetic. It’s inspirational on top of educational.

Most of these poems are short, small little things that definitely seem like they were all scribbled in the dark. They read like those little thoughts or moments of clarity that you can only have when your brain is half asleep, half awake, the cover of night allowing it to exist as both at once. That’s an annoyingly creative state for me too, and probably many others as well. (I say annoying because really I’d rather be sleeping in many of those moments, but I can usually force myself to jot some short something down, in the dark. So reading these pieces feels familiar. I’m sure they’ve been carefully drafted and edited again and again, but they each echo the way ideas slide so easily out of your head when “scribbled in the dark.”

My Unintentional Hemingway Quest

Ernest Hemingway is not my favorite writer. I acknowledge he’s definitely talented. Look, I’ve even read more than one of his novels. As a person, I find Hemingway far too much of a caricature of toxic masculinity and aggression to develop any cult-like hero worship like some of his fans do, the sort of fans who would intentionally take on the quest I find myself undertaking.

I’ve actually been to an oddly high number of his residences without really trying. This series of coincidences slowly created my unintentional quest: to visit every place Ernest Hemingway ever lived.

I live only a short way from Hemingway’s birthplace Oak Park, Illinois. I’ve visited the town a number of times for the shops and other features before I eventually went with my book nerd family to visit Hemingway’s home, which has since turned into a museum. We got to take a tour of his house, and see it set up all reconstructed to the time it’s famous occupants lived in it. Perhaps because we were so close to my own home, in a neighborhood so like my own in a lot of ways, (minus the fancy Victorian period housing of course,) but I felt a bit weird, realizing how awkward it would be to have a whole bunch of strangers walking through your house, peering in at your bedrooms and bathrooms just because you once used them. Creepy.

Next up was Florida. Hemingway made himself a rather nice home in Key West later in his life. I went out there myself because Florida, and headed out to Key West because it’s supposed to be a lovely island and someone else would be driving the hours long trip from our place all the way to the tip of the Florida Keys. This person also knew I was a bit of a book nerd and said, if I liked, we could go visit Hemingway’s house there.

Another one? Well, I actually enjoy visiting historical sites and museums on my vacations, and it seemed like an odd  coincidence that two Chicago Suburbanites should find themselves out here. Most importantly, the house is well known for it’s only current residents, a large collection of six-toed cats, all descendants of the cat Hemingway’s family originally brought here. If my only legacy is a historical mansion full of weird cats descended from my family pet, I will have lived a good life, even if I prefer dogs.

I did get to see plenty of six-toed cats lazing about in the island sun, and learn more about Hemingway’s life since he was a little kid in Oak Park. By the time I met him in this historic house, he’d grown up, had his own children, and already put several wives behind him. He even had to build a big wall around this home, because he was famous enough by that time that privacy was a valuable resource.

So I’d seen two homes that housed Hemingway at two very different points in his life, young and old, an anonymous child and a famed author. Well, just now I’ve visited yet another one, and mostly by accident.

My family and I were actually returning from another trip, a short family getaway to Canada, when last minute we decided to break up the last day of driving and stop in Petoskey, Michigan for a night. You know who spent every summer of his childhood learning all the outdoorsy skills that would later become a part of his rugged persona in Petoskey? That’s right, Ernest mother-loving Hemingway.

The house by Walloon Lake that he visited every summer here is still owned by his family and kept as a private property, but I was able to explore the town. Really, it was a bit ridiculous. I definitely did not camp in my nice hotel room. I went swimming, but definitely not fishing in the hotel pool. I walked by a bar in town that an older Hemingway frequented when he stayed in the area, and the park where he would watch bare-knuckle boxing matches, according to my sudden flurry of research on the place. Really, I felt ridiculous trying to connect to that past in the current day Petoskey. Everything was all done up for tourists, gift shops and overpriced restaurants everywhere. The only thing scheduled in that park was a summer concert later in the week, definitely no boxing.

Even back then, the town was a favored summer retreat for wealthy families, so I can’t imagine all of these changes would surprise Hemingway. Maybe the only thing that would confuse him about these waterfront gift shops would be the addition of fidget spinners to their shelves. Still, I could feel Hemingway silently bemoaning the death of a world where bare knuckle boxing was no longer considered acceptable public park entertainment. Maybe he would agree the bookstore that I bought two more poetry books from was a good addition. As much as I loathe Hemingway’s obsessive masculinity, at least he was not one of those manly types that felt the written word was for pussies.

Here the story of my unintentional Hemingway mission comes to a close, for now, as that’s how many places I’ve visited with a connection to the author. The man traveled plenty though, so there’s still more. I could be persuaded to drag myself over to Paris, I suppose, and Spain of course. Traveling the world has always been a goal of mine, and it’s nice to know I might find the ghost of a guy from my neck of the woods waiting there for me, whether I mean to find him or not.

Lily and the Octopus: A Dead Dog Book Worth Reading

So I’m reading a really amazing book right now called Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley, and I’m enjoying it enough that I really want to recommend it to my friends and family. The only problem is that the plot largely centers around this one guy’s relationship with his dog Lily, and of course, as with waaay to many dog books, Lily is dying. Specifically, she’s dying of a tumor on her head that looks like an octopus. Yeah, turns out that cute and whimsical sounding title is a warning of just how much heartbreak you’re in for if you try and read this book.

I had someone at work recommend this book to me first, and I didn’t want to read it right away myself. “What? A dog slowly dying of a painful medical condition? Her owner is a single 40 something man that could very easily be undone by her passing? Yeah, sign me up!” After I left work, I politely put the book very far down in the massive stack of recommendations people give me.

Still, something about the story (spoiler, it was the dog. I’m always a sucker for dogs, even terminally ill ones) drew my interest enough that, when I saw it was available at the library, I checked it out and mentally prepared myself to cry a whole lot.

I was pleasantly surprised though. I didn’t feel emotionally baited to ball my eyes out every ten minutes while reading. Rowley writes about a man trying to save his dog an illness he barely understands, something I could relate to on an all too personal level. I thought this personal connection would be the thing that made this book impossible to read, but instead, that connection is what made me connect to the story so readily and actually feel uplifted.

Ted, the human protagonist, definitely faces down one of the most tragic things that could possibly happen to him in this book, but he does so not only with an unflinching determination to fight it to the end, and no small amount of humor and imagination too. I saw a whole lot of myself in Ted. I may not be an aging gay man living alone in LA with my beloved dachsund, but when Ted described his Monopoly Night with Lily, where he had to play the banker and also handle all of Lily’s transactions for her because she was a dog, I definitely saw more than a bit of myself in him. Of course, I never played Monopoly with my dogs. That would be ridiculous. I hate Monopoly; we usually played Clue instead.

I also recognized that steadfast determination, the visceral need to hang onto Lily no matter what that characterized Ted’s approach to her illness. Lily is twelve years old when the octopus hits, so some people give Ted a bit of side eye and suggest that she is pretty old after all, and maybe it would be in her best interest if… But Ted makes them leave the end of that sentence unspoken because putting her down is simply out of the question.

He recognizes, just like many dog owners, that keeping Lily alive could turn into something just as brutal, if not more so, than killing her if he does not make the right decisions, if he doesn’t work hard to make sure she has the best quality of life possible. These parts reintroduced the same feeling of panicked exhaustion I had when my family had to make the same decisions.

Perhaps because I could identify so strongly with Ted, I never felt like the book was trying to take advantage of my emotions or manipulate my tear ducts in a way some other tragic books have. I will definitely not say I didn’t cry while reading this book, but the humor, the magical realism, and for me, what turned out to be a very relatable protagonist made the journey feel like more than another doggie sob story.

If some cruel psychopath comes up to you and says you have to read a book about a dying dog in the near future, you can go ahead and laugh in their faces, because now you’ve got the perfect way out of that situation. Happy sad reading!

Dear Reader, the Epistolary Novel

Okay, high school literary vocabulary time. An epistolary novel is a novel that’s told through letters or a collection of similar documents. Bram Stoker’s Dracula? An epistolary novel composed of letters, medical notes and journal entries. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis? Classic epistolary form. The Diary of Anne Frank? Epistolary, but nonfiction, so it’s not a novel. Those books that retell Shakespeare’s plays through texts peppered with emojis? Arguably epistolary novels.

Maybe the word epistolary sounds so stuffy and old fashioned, or maybe the idea of sending and receiving letters sounds even more old-fashioned, either way you’d be forgiven for wondering if this sort of form still has any place in the modern book world. Well, there are actually loads of brilliant contemporary books that use this form effectively and make for great reading. I recently, mostly accidentally, found myself reading a couple epistolary books in a row, and they are brilliant, so let me lay down some recommendations for you.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society By Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer

Yes, you’ll have to right that title down if you want to remember it, as it is a bit long. This book tells the story of Guernsy Island, an English Channel island occupied by the Nazis in World War II. Technically, the story is told through letters shared after the war, as there were strict rules against any communication with the outside world during the occupation.

The story follows an author looking for a new book idea who starts to correspond with natives of the island. They tell her how forming an initially fake, then real literary society helped them all survive the war. As most stories featuring Nazis, things can take a rather dark turn, but there’s also light, humor and hope in this story as well.

This is an era when telephones and the like technically existed, but email and computers did not, so it makes plenty of sense that written correspondences would still be a huge part of everyday life. Can we expect a story of similar depth in the modern age, when letters and exchanges through writing seem to grow ever shorter, more tweet-like in length? Brett Wright’s venerable work on YOLO Juliet aside, what would an original, modern epistolary novel look like? Probably something like these next couple of books. Boom! Segway into…

Dear Committee Members By Julie Schumacher

I probably couldn’t have fully appreciate this book until I entered college and was first introduced to the unending gauntlet of letters and proposals to project committees, playing email tag with professors and other staff, and of course, the oodles of cover letters you have to write for internships and eventually, hopefully, paying jobs.

Dear Committee Members is composed entirely of letters, memos, etc. surrounding main character Jason Fitger, a creative writing professor sick of putting in more time writing these unending mind numbing letters than into his own creative writing. A lot of reviews praise Julie Schumacher’s work by saying something more or less like, “Yes, finally someone’s made fun of this nonsense! I might have a slightly easier time making it through the school year with this book in my head.” In other words, it’s a parody that needed to be made, one that shows the place the epistolary novel has in the modern landscape.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette By Maria Semple

This book is actually getting adapted into a film, so it’s probably the most well known of the bunch right now. I didn’t even realize it was an epistolary novel when I picked it up. My mom loves the book, and has pushed me to read it for ages. Bernadette is a severely overtaxed suburban mother who suddenly disappears one day right before Christmas. The book tells the story of the days leading up to her disappearance and afterwards, as her daughter Bee tries everything to find her mother.

Actually, describing this plot  now makes me feel like I really need to go and talk to my mom and make sure everything’s okay. She really liked this book… Mom? you know we can talk about this, right?

The book has, again, a great sense of humor and effectively skewers the general upper-middle-class suburbia mentality, something I always enjoy as a lifelong suburban citizen. Passive Aggressive emails, annoyingly gung-ho PTA fundraising announcements, and petty backstabbing messages aplenty do the storytelling here, and it’s all to great effect, creating something like a mystery you need to piece together just like Bee as she looks for her mom.

Congrats, you now have one new vocabulary word and three amazing new books to read. I hope you enjoy them. Let me know what you think in the comments below. Did I miss one of your favorite epistolary books?

Choosing Books for Dad on Father’s Day

So this is a good heads up to get out of the way: Father’s Day is this Sunday. You ready? Did you get him a card? A gift? Anything? Well, you might want to take care of that now. don’t worry though, there are plenty of stores and companies out there willing to tell you exactly what to get with their fancy little “For Dad” display sections, which used to be the “For Mom” sections for Mother’s Day until that holiday passed and they needed a new market to corner.

I’ve noticed some pretty constant and slightly annoying trends in bookstores as far as what they’re promoting as “dad” books. Wherever I go, it looks like the store just scooped most of the car books, some science/tech minded titles, sport bios and some books about beer and cocktails accompanied by fancy whiskey stones together onto a table. Yup, cars, sports, science and a drinking problem. That should cover all dads everywhere. Good to go. Now let’s go pick out a card with a fart joke in it so your manly dad doesn’t need to feel you’re trying to connect with him on a genuine emotional level.

I noticed a similar pattern of strange cliches for Mother’s Day too, of course. I remember finding a book about baby penguins on the “For Mom” table. My guess is they figured “Moms, babies, cute things!” and slapped some baby animal books on the table, except my mother is decidedly indifferent towards penguins. You know who loves penguins? My dad! He’d probably appreciate that baby penguin book a whole lot more than a lamborghini model catalog. Fancy, not-compensating-for-anything-no-sir cars don’t hold much interest for him. A book about penguins, however, and the father penguins that brave the coldest parts of the Antarctic winter without food or shelter to see their little eggs hatch? That might make for a better Father’s Day story.

What about dads that love music (no, don’t just point me at that one Bruce Springsteen memoir and album, of course they already have it,) or dads that like to cook stuff beyond a nice meat chunk on the manly barbecue? What about dads who don’t drink, or dads whoread poetry, literature, or anything in the humanities?

The more I see stores try to make things “easy” for us simple customers, the more I’m convinced that these “For Dad” book displays are exactly what a holiday like this does not need. Sure, I could probably find a Football or Basketball star biography my dad might like on that display. These tables probably have something your dad wouldn’t mind reading, but is “tolerably decent” or “yeah it was pretty good” really the level you want to reach with a Father’s day present?

Maybe I’m sentimental, but I feel like Father’s Day is the sort of occasion you should put a whole lot of heart into. Yes, that might even mean going into the stacks at your local bookstore and exploring sections you know your father might actually enjoy. I’d tell you what I eventually picked out for my dad as an example here, but he’s very likely reading this post himself, and I’m not spoiling the surprise here. Relax dad. I didn’t get you whiskey stones.