The Screen Before the Page

Okay everyone, I must come before you to admit a grievous sin. I willfully and knowingly watched a screen adaptation of a famous book before reading the source material. May the Book Lord forgive me. In this case, I am talking about the Emmy-Winning series The Handmaid’s Tale, adapted from Margaret Atwood’s sci-fi dystopian novel that, for some reason, really picked up in popularity in November of 2016, along with many other classic sci-fi dystopia books, like 1984, Brave New World and similar books. Huh, go figure.

I’ve actually read those other two books, and with the sudden uptake in interest in this particular genre, I decided I should eventually read The Handmaid’s Tale too. Then I saw the book would be adapted into a TV series and figured, oh better get a definite leap on that one then, so I can read it before I watch it. Of course, I probably have upwards of fifty books or so still on my to-read list that I “definitely have to read, asap” because of a film or TV adaptation. It’s really not fair at this point. I’d say Hollywood needs to find some original material, but I’ve seen what happens when they try to do that and I’ll just say no thank you.

Anyway, I figured I would just wait to pick up the book if I heard the series was any good. I had plenty of other books to get on reading, and decided not to make Tale my top priority. Then, it turns out the series was very good. Great, now I had the pressure of reading something before tackling a series I also have to watch because it’s turning into it’s own critically acclaimed, award-winning entity.

Then, one day, I got access to a Hulu account, and it was right there, looking at me, judging me from the “Top Shows” queue. Elisabeth Moss’s stupid talented face stared at me from underneath that big white bonnet. Before I knew it, someone had clicked on the show and I accidentally watched the first two episodes. I meant to just check out the first one, honestly.

Then I proved I was willfully sinning by watching as many episodes as I could cram into an evening until I finished the series. I really enjoyed it, and was glad I did watch it by the end, but still. Watching movie/series before I read the book, what was I thinking? You know what’s worse? I still haven’t read the book! Gaaaaah! What am I doing to my bookworm reputation?!

Now, observant readers might remenber that I also only read Game of Thrones after I watched the series, or the seasons that were out by then anyhow. That is true, but even the show and series’s staunchest fans will admit the books are so thick that they shouldn’t necessarily be required reading for any fan.The Handmaid’s Tale is, by contrast, a single and relatively slender book that is ridiculously easy to get your hands on, what with the rise of popularity in dystopian classics. I guess I just have to call it guys, right now. I’m… I’m a bad person, an irredeemable moral reprobate.

Except hold on, that’s exactly what those big bad patriarchal Gilead dudes in Tale would want me to do, blame myself, feel terrible and seek penance. Look guys, the truth is there’s just a whole lot of content; books, shows, movies, you name it, that everyone is made to feel like they have to read. That definitely puts a lot of pressure on anyone trying to remain “in the know.” I was partially motivated to read and/or watch Handmaid’s Tale because I love me some quality sci-fi, but even more so I was pushed by the book’s sudden resurgence in popularity.

So what, am I just blaming everyone else for my Cardinal Book Sin? Well, as much as that technique usually works for me, no I am not, not completely. I think I also put too much pressure on myself sometimes, that bookworms in general do when it comes to this subject. We can’t always read everything first. I mean, should we even want to. We talk about movies ruining the book a lot, but what about when you haven’t read the book, so the movie can’t ruin it for you? If you’re brave enough to pick up a book that a movie you didn’t like was based off of, isn’t it likely that whatever you find will be better than that trainwreck of a film you watched? From my own experience, I gotta say the statistics point to yes. What’s more, with high quality adaptations like The Handmaid’s Tale or Game of Thrones, you’ll often end up getting even more of a great thing.

So maybe watching the movie or show first like some filthy plebeian isn’t the worst thing I could do as a bookworm. Thinking about and flipping the situation around, it could really provide a nice change of perspective.

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Why All the YA Verse Novels?

When I was in high school, a specific set of books was very popular with a wide swath of students, not even students that were especially bookish. Some read nothing else, as far as I could tell, which surprised me. Specifically, Ellen Hopkins was fast turning into the belle of the ball at my school, with books like Crank, Burned and Glass, amongst others. First glance at each of these books will tell you one thing, besides how edgy the covers were trying to be for their teen audience; these books were crazy thick. I’ll admit, I wondered how I was supposed to defend my title as one of the schools biggest bookworms if everyone started reading books as thick as a small town’s phone book. I had to investigate these books, see what was up.

Well, when I got my hands on one of Hopkin’s books I opened it up and found the heft was real, but the pages were relatively bare. Sparse lines of poetry dotted each page. So they were verse novel (or novels in verse, as they are also called.) The extra thickness of each book was only accommodating how few words were on each page. These kids were maybe reading more pages than me, but I could hold my head high still, knowing that I was still bookworm champion of my school, that these books weren’t really as dense as what I was reading every day. I started to think of them as “cheating books,” books you read to seem cool, edgy, and well-read, when really you were ready a dozen or so words per page, tops.

So that was my first impression of YA and children verse novels, for the most part; cheating books built to make kids feel more well read than they are. I wasn’t a fan of the realistic “tough stuff” genre that Hopkins and her books represented, so I didn’t really feel compelled to go deeper than that. YA verse novels remained in my periphery for quite a while after that. Like so many sappy song lyrics might’ve warned me, I didn’t realize what I had until it was gone. Love That Dog, The Crossover, Inside Out and Back Again, I was aware these books existed, and were pretty popular at that, but I never let them enter my circle.

As I migrated out of the Young Adult section and into regular Adult reads (no, not those adult books you pervert,) in library and bookstores, I noticed one particular type of book was not following me. While I could find matured versions of many YA books I loved, from high fantasy to urban fantasy to some sci-fi. Look, I had specific tastes, okay? Novels in verse all but disappeared from the shelves. That’s when I first realized that the popular verse novel was, for the most part, a YA phenomenon, which struck me as odd. There was nothing inherently juvenile about those books. If you went by the content, it was usually quite the opposite, with the books typically aiming for a gritty and serious air.

Perhaps it was this mystery around why I couldn’t have these books, or perhaps it was my general increased interest in poetry as I discovered some poets I’d come to love, like Mary Oliver and Billy Collins (I wouldn’t learn much about the wave of Instagram poets until later.) Either way, I started to read a few more verse novels and try to piece together why they couldn’t break out of the YA genre with any widespread success.

Was my original instinct right? Were these books just trying to trick kids into reading books with more pages and no pictures? Were adults too smart to fall for this trick? Maybe grown ups didn’t need those books because they didn’t need to pick a book of so many pages for a book report. Well, that’s the cynical answer anyway, or the most cynical one I could come up with. Would that really make it the truth, though?

I started to build a kinder answer too, another side that thinks more of the teens that love reading these books, which maybe was not possible while I was actually stuck with them in high school. Are teens and kids the only ones adventurous enough to read these books? Novels in verse remain some sort of alternative, fringe phenomenon for adult readers, even as poetry gets more popular with the rise of Instagram poets getting on the bestseller lists. Adults will dip into poetry in the short little pieces typical of these  internet poets, but they won’t crack open a whole wacky novel in this style. Only teens are adventurous and experimental enough that they managed to turn the verse novel into a booming genre.

Those are the closest things I have to answers on the matter of YA verse novels. Pick from either side of the coin you feel like; the cynical or the hopeful, a trick of the YA publishing industry or a demonstration of literary curiosity and adventurousness. Depending on the day, I sometimes believe in one and sometimes the other.

Alice versus Dorothy: Fantasy Protaganist Throw-down!

We all have our own idea of fun summer projects. Me, I started reading some literary children’s classics that I’d never tried before. Just recently, I made what turned out to be the interesting choice of reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and following that immediately with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. With Alice originally coming out in 1865 and Oz getting released in 1900, the two are relatively close together on the literary timeline, and make for an interesting comparison when read side by side.

Just to make sure I’m not misleading anyone with that title, which I admit comes close to clickbait territory, I’m not talking about who would win in a fight, Alice or Dorothy. That would be entirely to easy, and a very short entry. Dorothy, the farm girl from Kansas would easily beat Alice, a prim and proper, very likely upper class Victorian girl. Even if Dorothy didn’t have to help out on the farm too much, she’d easily still have more muscle mass than Alice. See? We’re done already. That’s no fun.

Rather, I want to look at their book and see what makes each one a classic, what gives it that unique, immortal flavor.

Alice came first, so we’ll start with her. As I knew beforehand, Non sequitur, dream logic nonsense was the book’s dominating flavor. I remember feeling like either I was on something when I first watched the Disney cartoon Alice, or else the animators had been. That cartoon wasn’t entirely faithful to the book. It mixed elements from the first and second books (Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, respectively,) but they definitely nailed the strange, fever dream atmosphere. If anything, the book came off as just a bit more British, meaning mostly polite and a bit more ponderous, instead of the overwhelming drug trip spectacle that Disney cartoon left in my brain.

That strange, surreal feel seems to be the whole point for Carroll, and it does work This might be one of the few stories that pulls off the whole “It was all just a dream!” ending because that very fact seemed likely, if not obvious, through most of the story, either that or Alice accidentally ate one of her older sister’s LSD doses, thinking it was candy, but LSD wouldn’t be invented for another century, so that seems unlikely. In the end, while I’d never read this book before, I still felt like I knew it because of how much Alice, the Red Queen, mad tea parties and all that have melted into our cultural lexicon.

Dorothy’s world comes off as much less nonsensical, or at least non sequitur, which I realize sounds like a strange thing to say about a book featuring plenty of talking animals, magic, and living scarecrows and robots, but it’s true. Baum wasn’t going for an “all a dream” feel, because in his book it wasn’t. That’s right, unlike in the famous movie, Dorothy’s adventure to Oz was totally real. I wasn’t totally sure why  the film changed this, although I did find a really interesting video discussing how it was a sort of message about how women should be happy to stay home and work once men got home from the war. I do love me some edgy internet theorizing, and it’s an intriguing, well put together argument if you want to take a look.

If you are familiar only with the wizard of Oz movie, the original is a bit stranger, and darker. You can definitely see how Hollywood tidied up the story.

First off, we never get the Tin Woodsman’s amazing origin story. No, he’s not some steampunk robot. He used to be human, but the Wicked Witch of the West cursed his ax, (got wicked reasons involving a girl a family didn’t want married to the non-tin woodsman.) First, his ax cut off his legs, which he replaced with some highly functional tin replicas. Then, his arms were cut off, and he kept up the tin theme there, and then, I kid you not, he got his head cut off but also somehow replaced with a perfect working replica. The story skips over questions of transferring consciousness to cyborg tin heads and ends with his chest getting cut in half and then his whole body finally consisting entirely of tin. Yup, this this some proto-Ghost in the Shell type craziness that I didn’t expect to come across in a century old kid’s book.

There are more bizarre differences between The Wizard of Oz book and film, but I won’t cover those here because I’m trying to keep the Alice/Dorothy coverage even. Maybe I’ll have to dedicate another post to a rant about Hollywood sanitizing a bizarre children’s story that turns to axe murder as a solution a lot more than the movie did. In the mean time, what does this mean for these two books together?

Well, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz does blaze new trails in the children’s and fantasy genre, just like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, taking some bizarre turns not included in the movie that make the two books more similar in their love for the whimsical and strange. How the authors treat the strangeness each young girl finds on her adventure leads to two distinct and separate feelings.

While Carroll creates a world where the nonsense of everything is exactly the point, Baum creates something closer to a more modern fairy tale. There’s definitely plenty of fantastical elements, but they adhere to something like a coherent set of rules, aiding in creating a traditional adventure/quest plot, albeit with some twists and turns. Both defined children’s fantasy, and fantasy at large really, because of these bold steps they took to create stories that relied on entertaining whimsy.

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.

World 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.

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.

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.”

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?

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.