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?

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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.

2017 Printers Row Festival is LIT(erary)

Okay, I apologize for the terrible pun title, but if I have to take on the wrath of livid pun haters to spread the word about the Chicago Printer’s Row Literary festival this weekend, then so be it.

I’m always excited when the Printer’s Row festival rolls around each summer. So many brilliant writers from different genres and markets come together for panels, presentations, and talks appealing to any book lover attending. I found a vast and varied number of my own interests represented on this year’s guest list. Cory Doctorow, one of my favorite sci-fi writers who’s also dabbled in activism and column writing, will be there. Local poet Kevin Coval, who I’ve previously posted about, will be there, and even Gillian Flynn, the master thriller writer, has a panel too.

Printer’s Row doesn’t just feature guests appealing to hardcore book lovers though. They’ve got some big names that could draw in anyone. Kareem Abdul-Jabar will host a talk regarding his time as an NBA champion, which he wrote a book about. I will not pretend to know a whole lot about the professional sports ball here, but my more athletic friends are definitely excited about that one. Senator Al Franken will promote his own autobiography in one presentation, and TV’s Chopped judge Amanda Freitag will discuss her book The Chef Next Door. From my own experience, a Chopped judge on the guest list should draw moms and aunts from miles around. My mom loves reading anyway, but if you could see how many episodes of the show are currently clogging our DVR, you’d understand what a big deal this is for her.

Beyond all these appearances, there’s what’s perhaps my favorite part of the Festival, the vendors. Booksellers upon booksellers set up tents in the street offering books and paper goods old and new, antique and new release, handmade and mass produced. I’m drafting up my yearly bookshelf contingency plan for when I bring home, yet again, more books than I could ever read in the next year, or even make enough room for. It’s the Sunday sales that always get me. On Sunday, the last day of the festival, booksellers get increasingly desperate to offload their merch, offering  books, even brand new ones, as two-for one deals, and other ridiculously appealing sales meant to move as much books as possible. It just so happens I will be attending the festival this Sunday afternoon, so this could be another record-breaking year for my To Be Read pile. Wish me luck.

There’s a whole lot to draw anyone in the Chicago area to the Printer’s Rows festival this year. Hopefully I’ll see some of you there. If you’re trying to find me, I’ll be the woman hidden by a pile of books so tall it’ll tower over my head.

Wonder Woman in Print

Watching the reviews for the new Wonder Woman movie pour in, I’m equal parts relieved and overjoyed that people responded positively to the film. For me, this will be the first time I’ve ever seen Wonder Woman on the big screen, or any screen in a live action show. I’d fallen in love with her in print without ever seeing her in anything bigger than Saturday morning cartoons. Here’s hoping Wonder Woman’s success will make studio execs realize they need to bring to life some other heroines stuck only in print. Maybe Marvel might finally be cowed into giving Scarlett Johansson a Black Widow movie when they see their rival DC starting to climb out of the gloomy crater created by Man of Steel, Batman Vs. Superman and Suicide Squad failing so badly.

Until then, now what? If you liked the movie, maybe you want to see it a couple more times, get your Wonder Woman fix, but remember what I said about meeting Wonder Woman in her print domain first? If you liked the movie, let me help you out by showing you a couple different books to check so you can spend more time with your favorite Amazonian warrior princess.

First off, I recommend a book that isn’t even a Wonder Woman comic book. Crazy! The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore gives you a peek at the strange life of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, and the circumstances surrounding Wonder Woman’s creation. Marston was a strange genius who is commonly noted for helping to invent the polygraph machine, the lie detector, and having a notable fixation on bondage, which definitely seeps into many of the early Wonder Woman comics. Yeah, Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth has a stranger origin than you probably imagined, and now you’ll never be able to see that thing on screen again without remembering Marston the weirdo scientist.

If that sort of interesting back story doesn’t repel you, definitely check out Lepore’s book for more. The story only gets more compelling from there. You can learn all about Marston’s mistress, and how Wonder Woman bears a striking visual resemblance to her. The historical emergence of the women’s suffrage movement and early feminism play a huge part in the story, on a wider ideological scale.

But maybe you don’t want to read about kinky scientists and world history. Maybe seeing comic book heroes getting into epic battles on screen made you want to see epic battles in print. Yeah, punching and Nazis and stuff! Wonder Woman started out in WWII, so yeah, punching Nazis and stuff was pretty much the soul focus of the earliest comics, beyond the bondage stuff.

Actually, for my next suggestion, I recommend you check out collections of the early Wonder Woman comics, like the Wonder Woman Chronicles. Vol. 1, for example, presents a collection of the many adventures Wonder Woman had in the 40’s. Reading those stories offers a really interesting contrast to the super dark, brooding and serious tone super hero movies, and even some comics have today.

There’s ridiculous b-movie plots like going back in time to fight dinosaurs, or the sinister plot make milk too expensive. For real, you guys. I couldn’t make this stuff up. These writers weren’t afraid to come up with wonky, outlandish stories, stories that contrast incredibly with the current comic landscape, where everything is taken so seriously. Reading these older comics reminds you of the lighter side these stories can have, and also all the incredibly intense casual racism. I mean, I get we were at war but Wonder Women was too happy to degrade “Jap” soldiers for modern audiences to just read through the early issues uncritically. Hmmm… maybe a more mature and modern Wonder Woman wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.

If you’re looking for an introduction into Wonder Woman’s current comic world, I suggest trying out the New 52. Wonder Woman’s New 52 has a a genuinely great arc that turned me onto the talented Brian Azzarello, and it’s a part of DC’s franchise wide reboot. You can read these comics without having any prior knowledge of a million recurring secondary characters or villains, the part of trying out new superhero comics that’s always the most daunting for me.

Other writers and artists have done more with Wonder Women since, but if you’re just starting out, I say the New 52 is the ideal way to sample what today’s Wonder Woman comics have to offer. If you really like those, you can check out titles written by Gail Simone, Greg Rucka, and even Jodi Picoult, yes, that Jodi Picoult, for some reason.

Well, I hope these recommendations are enough to hold you over until Wonder Woman’s next appearance on screen. Maybe you’ll even find a favorite new book or series to enjoy. Let me know you’re favorite books, comics or otherwise, that feature Wonder Woman in the comments below.