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.

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.

Stuff About Stuff I’ve Been Feeling by Alicia Cook

It takes ingenuity and creativity to even get published in the poetry industry. To stand out, it takes even more. I stumbled upon Alicia Cook’s Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately and found a poetry collection innovative enough to stand out as playful, fresh and earnest. I’d first heard mention of Cook’s book when it was nominated for the Goodreads Choice Award for Poetry in 2016. Cook’s book was beaten out by Amanda Lovelace’s The Princess Saves Herself in This One that year. Lovelace definitely deserved the win for her work, no doubt. Cook, though, also created something stand-out and special.

Her book, like the cassette tape drawn on the cover, has two sides. First there’s Side A, her poems, each accompanied by a footnote mentioning what song Cook listened to while creating the piece. Side B holds the “Remixes,” erasure poetry created out of her own work, and separate musical inspiration for that piece as well.

To clarify, erasure poetry is when someone creates a poem by blacking out or erasing all the other words in a pre-existing chunk of text, everything from other poetry to newspaper articles, and creating a new piece of art out of the words you choose to leave. Generally, this form creates a short poem with an air of the strictest essentials laid bare. Most times, the erasure poem’s message is something completely new or else not apparent in the original piece, but the careful selection of each word shows that essence was, in a way,  present the whole time.

There’s something really clever in creating erasure poems with one’s own work. Typically, a poet creates with found pieces, making something of someone else’s. Cook going over her work again does something interesting. It partially plays off the way music informs the structure of this cassette tape masquerading as a poetry collection, that remix element. These poems are songs on a playlist, someone’s favorites and all the remixes.

On another level, we have the writer always eager to continue fiddling with her work and what it says, an impulse that I and just about any writer ever is all too familiar with. It’s the marrying of these two artistic themes, the remixing and the urge to continually self-edit, say something different with the same words that form Stuff I’ve Been Feeling’s unique atmosphere and message. There’s always more to say, and sing, even over what’s already been put down to paper. Many facets of emotional power lay locked in the same set of words.

Cook pieces together this lesson on artistic repetition with a homey, almost handmade air. The poem “tracks” relay intimate personal content, and then that content and it’s remixes create a sort of mix tape bound into print, a small gift that gives you a  truly stand-out poetic work to enjoy.

23 Book Salute

Hey guys, I recently celebrated my tiny human body living through yet another rotation of the earth around the sun. In other words, I turned twenty-three this week, and for my birthday I definitely got plenty of books, more than my already stuffed full bookshelves are telling me I should be getting, but birthday books must be welcomed onto the shelf. It’s a pretty strict clause in my book collection bylaws. I have a lot of strict bylaws that require I always allow myself to buy more books, even when I have too many already, now that I think about it.

If I’m a bit of a book glutton, it’s only because I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today without books. They’ve been comforts, opportunities for growth, windows into worlds I’d never seen before. As such, I’d like to use this time to give something of an award acceptance speech, a chance to thank all the books that brought me here today. I could mention humans too I suppose, but mostly I’d just be thanking them for giving me books, so let’s just cut out the middle man here.

Hello everyone, I’m just so honored to win the award of somehow being allowed to continue my life for another year, despite many instances of gross incompetence on my part. I couldn’t have made it through my 22nd year without so many books, and I’ll try to thanks them all before the band starts playing me off. I’d like to thank:

  1. Mary Oliver’s Upstream, for introducing me to some of the best essays I’ve ever read, written by the best poet I’ve ever read.
  2. Thanks to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for giving me the answer to life, the universe and everything.
  3. Thank you Saga, a beautifully written and illustrated sci-fi graphic novel series for showing me more alien genitalia than I ever really thought I’d need to see. Lot’s of variety there.
  4. Thanks to the Game of Thrones series, for jump starting the trend of killing off characters with abandon. Truly, none of my favorite protagonists are safe anymore, thanks to you. (This may be a partially sarcastic thank you.)
  5. Thank you Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instrument series, for addressing the serious dearth of quality gay warlock characters in my life and the genre at large, and surviving far too many attempts to be made into a a film, TV series, etc. Stay strong.
  6. Thank you to Lumberjanes for creating touching, realistic friendships in an outlandish setting that almost made me wish my parents had sent me to summer camp.
  7. Thanks The Rosie Project for being one of the funniest books I read in a while and having a character on the autism spectrum depicted tenderly and without gimmicks.
  8. Thank you Pretty Deadly, for proving that Fantasy and Western are indeed compatible genres and making something truly strange and beautiful.
  9. Thank you R.H. Sin’s Whiskey, Words and a Shovel I-III for proving the best strategy is to find the perfect title and stick with it.
  10. Thank you to that one battered copy of Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist for finally making it into my hands during a Christmas Party White Elephant gift exchange this year, so I could at last read this classic.
  11. Thank you Hamilton: The Revolution, for allowing me to be an even more insufferable Hamilton snob than ever before.
  12. Thanks, A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab, for concluding a series I love without breaking my heart, except for that special way that any a writer with power over characters you truly love can, which is mostly good in a strange way.
  13. Thank you a Study in Charlotte, for coming at the “Sherlock Holmes revamped” concept in a fresh way that didn’t have me breaking my eye-rolling muscle, like I did when someone tried to make me watch Elementary.
  14.  Thank you Jen Wilde’s Queens of Geek for your fun and nerdy premise. It was the perfect excuse to cuddle in bed and keep reading during that streak of terrible weather.
  15. Thank you Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, for finding a way to make over a poem which includes an in depth description of a tree’s biological anatomy.
  16. Thank you original Harry Potter series, for remaining a solid rock in my book life, for staying solid and true, even with each subsequent amusement park and frivolous movie adaptation trying exploit
  17. Thanks, Dragons Love Tacos, for restoring my faith in the future of children’s picture books and fine literature with that title alone.
  18. Thank you Wonder by Emma Donoghue, for proving that a book about a quaint Irish farm village can be the farthest thing from a cozy Celtic romance or mystery, if the woman who wrote Room also writes it.
  19. Thank you Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey for tricking the general public into caring about poetry by getting on the New York Times Bestseller list.
  20. Thanks books about Pokemon for existing, so I had something for the large number of younger male cousins with birthday parties I don’t remember getting invited to. Thanks, also, for letting me peek inside you to see what a Litten is so I could kind of understand what they kept going on about.
  21. John Lewis’s March, for inspiring me to travel to the Women’s March on Washington and take part in history.
  22. Thanks so much The Wicked + The Divine for being yet another reason I need to get the Image Comics logo tattooed on my forehead.
  23.  Finally, thank you that one “cozy mystery” book Above the Paw. I still have not read you, nor do I plan to, but every time I see that cover of a dog in a police uniform, looking ready to deal out some justice, along with that title, still sitting there on that shelf at my local bookstore, my day always gets a little bit better.

I’ve had a lot of books make my year better in a lot of different ways. Truly, I can feel so many of the books I read impacting me, changing the person I’m every day, usually for the better. Thanks to each and every one, and here’s to even more books make this coming year better too.

Final National Poetry Month Shout Out: The Great R.H. Sin!

Well guys, here it is, my last poetry post of national poetry month. I’ve had loads of fun doing these, and I came up with enough material, that I really feel I could start up a whole blog on poetry. Hmmm… a project to consider, perhaps. For now though, I want to close out my National Poetry Month round of posts by promoting another poet that I just stumbled into and grew very fond of; R.H. Sin.

R.H. Sin is another poet who was able to find success first through building a fan base online. Like most other Instagram and social media poets, the medium allowed him to also present a visual side to his art, specifically his work as a photographer. It can be  easyto think of work being shared on social media as amateur. Isn’t everyone a photographer on Instagram? Can’t anyone just post poetry online? Well, yeah. That’s what’s so great about this whole medium. Personalities like Sin, like Rupi Kaur, like Michael Faudet and others can rise to prominence on the strength of their vision, speaking to a wide range of people, touching them with a voice and vision that’s in touch with it’s audience because there’s a real intimacy between followers and creators online. I felt that intimacy just reading Sin’s work.

I picked up R.H. Sin’s Whiskey, Words and a Shovel II mostly for the title, I’ll admit. It’s a very compelling title, and the “II” suggested that he had used it before (he did, there are now three WW&S’s out,) realized that he could never come up with a cooler title for a poetry collection than that, and decided to keep it. Yeah, he probably had other, more legitimate reasons regarding artistic vision and all that that made him choose the title, but that’s what stuck in my head when I first saw it, and I have no regrets admitting it. Really though, I should probably get into the meat of his work. This far in and talking about the titles of his books is probably taking things too slow.

Reading Sin is a gentle, reassuring experience. If Rupi Kaur’s writing is a cry for healing, Sin is more of a gentle murmur. He’s constantly reassuring his reader, or perhaps some other person that exists beyond the poem as we experience it, that it’s okay to want better things for yourself, that you have worth, are a survivor, and deserve to be happy. That actually made it a really great read for me after a long day, when I needed some sort of pick me up.

It’s really easy for poetry to be spit-fire agitating, or else flowery and romantic, but Sin’s work isn’t quite either all the way. These loving poems aren’t outpouring odes of devotion, but rather calm and spare reassurances. They are not diatribes about overcoming toxic, unhealthy relationships, but reminders that you deserve to and are able to overcome these tough times. I definitely don’t want to knock down either style I just compared Sin’s work to, but I felt like his work did something just a bit different from so many other poets that’s I’ve read, and it’s something I didn’t know I needed until I found his voice.

So I’ll be going back to more standard prose and so forth book reviews next week, next month already. I’m glad I had such a great final recommendation to finish off this month with. I encourage you to continue to seek out poetry beyond this month, and beyond what I’ve suggested here. Yeah, most poetry sections in bookstores are deplorably under-stocked, but I think you’ve noticed by now that a huge wealth of modern day poets are setting up shop online. Go ahead, check out sites like Instagram, Tumblr, Wattpad, etc. and see if you can find a voice that speaks to you in ways you didn’t know you needed to be spoken to, find something that moves and fulfills you in the best possible. That’s what poetry can do, and I hope you get to bring more of that into your life.

Rupi Kaur, Milk and Honey and Poetry’s Modern Landscape

When I first tried to describe Rupi Kaur’s book Milk and Honey to someone, there was a bit of a misunderstanding.

“So she’s a poet. Her book was a New York Times best seller.”

“Wait, so it’s not a poetry book?”

“What? No, of course it’s a poetry book! It’s a poetry book and a New York Times bestseller.”

“What?”

Yes, it’s almost an oxymoron. A poetry book that is a huge, massive commercial success. So how did Kaur do it? I was surprised as anyone when I saw one book of poetry move from the small shelf hidden in back of bookstores that’s usually reserved for poetry to the front of the store, with the James Patterson, John Grisham and other best seller books. I was happy, but I wanted to know, how did this woman do it? If I figured out what lead to her success, could I figure out what kind of future poetry had? I’m sure many publishers were looking at the same numbers and trying to make their own, greedy calculations about the very same thing, but I’m looking for more than money here. I’m looking for a future where something I love is less irrelevant.

The thing is, it’s silly to talk about Kaur’s path to success like it’s some secret to crack. While she first started writing for her own private needs to heal from a traumatic experience, one you can witness yourself in Milk and Honey. She writes very earnestly about healing after a sexual assault, and people found her words and accompanying line drawings really spoke to them.

You can see her work, and the many people discussing how it speaks to them, on her various social media accounts, though Instagram is probably the platform where she became the most famous, as a part of a movement of poets using visual elements in presenting their work on line. Lang Leav and Tyler Knott Gregson, among others, have also found success, including their own book deals through this route. Their widespread success shows that the power of a vast, quickly created network through social media definitely shows the first step to success in a modern poetry landscape. Rupi Kaur’s book, though, has gone beyond the popularity of that realm even,with just this month marking a million of her books being sold. What other factors, then, are making her work excel?

We live in a fiery age for identity politics. I’m talking about the politics surrounding someone’s race, gender, orientation, that sort of thing. As a woman of color herself, and one that writes to capture a traumatic experience that and reclaim her identity as a woman who can have relationships, sexual and romantic, without fear. This book speaks to people because of how well she captures an experience that has touched far too many lonely lives, yes, but also because she is speaking about things that people are finally ready and  willing to bring out into the open; intersectional feminism, misogyny and sexuality. When I see such honest work like Kaur’s, it makes me pretty glad that we do live in this age.

Milk and Honey is only Rupi Kaur’s first book, and with her popularity, I doubt we’ve heard the last of her. I hope poetry continues to capture readers’ imagination and grow in popularity. With Milk and Honey very likely being an essential piece in that process, I’d be silly not to honor it on National Poetry Month.

Kevin Coval, Chicago & the Poet-Rapper Connection

For this first poet profile of National Poetry Month, I’ll be boosting awareness of someone close to home, Kevin Coval and his latest poetry book, A People’s History of Chicago. Coval is a Chicago area poet and community builder, going out and teaching people the power of expression through poetry. In walking the beat, so to speak, for his work, he’s learned the feeling of Chicago inside and out, which made him capable of producing quite a comprehensive history in his book.

Coval turns out pieces on every notable Chicago figure from the city’s founder, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable to Kanye West to the Daley dynasty, looking at the history of corruption, the African American culture of the city resisting erasure and the moments of the city that are beautiful for horrible and/or wonderful reasons. The printed words on the paper seem to be spat out with poetry slam energy, a very contagious passion. This energy explains why the book has a forward from Chance the Rapper, a Chicago native himself, for those of you who don’t know. Coval’s work, especially in this exploration of urban Chicago life is an excellent example of the many ways poetry and rap can be kindred spirits.

I sometimes joke that poetry and rap are nothing alike because you can actually make money as a rapper. Fans of rap are always quick to correct me, to declare that rap and poetry are close siblings in the world of words. Well, if you’re stubborn and financially irresponsible enough to want to call yourself a poet, then you’ve really fulfilled the most important part of actually being a poet, caring more about your words and message than practical things like money and your parents being proud of you. So yes, by my personal estimation, rappers are poets, but it becomes even more apparent in practice.

Substantive rappers such as Chance himself, who says Coval taught him “what it meant to be a poet,” create work I couldn’t readily separate from the modern, quick on it’s linguistic foot work poets like Coval make. Often, on further ends of the spectrum, people see rappers only going on about pouring champagne onto stripper booties and poets who only dole out  dreamy spaced-out, cryptic phrases that no one understands. Those polar opposite stereotypes make it seem like the genres should be totally opposed, and yes some types of poetry and rap are very dissimilar, but Coval and artists like Chance the Rapper are artists who use the force of what their medium does to their words to create images and stories what they’ve seen and put some power into their frank, open discussion about issues inherent in their critically undervalued environment and experience.

Coval’s work shows he feels rapper musicians and straight up poets are equally deserving of praise and a part in his People’s History, including both Chief Keef and Gwendolyn Brooks. Where other people might think to raise one of these characters above the other, view them as distinct, different, Coval honors them both in his poetry, showing how they all are playing a part in the same game, a part in keeping the African American community in Chicago alive.

For National Poetry Month, I really hope you guys will check out a seriously talented poet who knows how to write about a city that’s near to my heart. Reading Coval will teach you about the city of Chicago and the power of poetic style in confronting a gritty, urban life, and you get to simply enjoy reading some truly engaging poetry.

Blind Date With a Book

If you’re a book lover, you’ve probably already seen this cool little concept, perhaps in your own local bookstore, library, or even pictures of it online. “Blind Date With a Book” is probably the most common term for it, though I’ve also seen “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover.” Either way, it’s the same  process; wrap up a book in plain, brown paper, making sure nothing on the book’s actual cover is visible. Then, a description of the book is written on the cover. That description, not the cover and blurbs created by the publishers to give the book a very specific image is what the reader uses to decide if they’ll take it home. As much as the publishers might feel  annoyed at all their hard work getting covered up, for readers it can be a fun, unique experience

I myself just recently made one of my first Blind Date With a Book purchases. Maybe that seems a bit strange. I am a voracious reader after all, and spent plenty of money on books already. On the other hand, I am ridiculously shy when it comes to dating and romance, never one to make the first move. If I’m waiting for an inanimate object, even a book, to make the first move for me, it’s no wonder that it took me a while to try out a Blind Date With a Book.

Perusing the Blind Date books, I happened across one that caught my eye. The description said it took place between a group of nerdy friends at their first con (convention, like ComicCon, for the uninitiated.) That plus the mention of a same sex romance as one of the plot threads intrigued me, made me feel like this was more than just a silly YA Romance book, (I could tell from the description alone that it was certainly a YA book, anonymity be damned.) I’m also a huge fan of the general nerdy, Mecca-like gathering atmosphere some of the bigger conventions have, and I hadn’t really read too many books that used this setting before, so I was intrigued.

When I got home, I opened the books and found this:2017-03-31 13.55.33

To be honest, I’m not sure this is a book I would’ve picked out if it hadn’t been my blind date. Sure, I love the title, Queens of Geek. That sounds like it could be my official title, after all. Still, the pink cover and the fact that it was published by something called “Swoon Press,” probably would’ve turned me off. I’d had my fill of YA romances long ago, way before I left the target YA age range. Romance in general is not my favorite genre, and this book was definitely being sold on that YA Romance angle, with a slight nerdy twist.

On the other hand, the blind description focused on the nerd angle in part but also on the dynamics between nerdy friends and online creators. This isn’t simply another teen romance, although their were reference to the male love interest watching one of the female main characters through “his dark lashes.” A few choice lines like that gave me shuddering flashbacks to some of the pulpier vampire romances I read in my vampire makeout/Twilight phase, but this was a better book. It was well written, creating characters that were more than a sum of any cliches, nerdy or romantic, and really nicely captured the convention atmosphere, as well as the lives of the vloggers, bloggers and panel stars that come to these cons. I was pleasantly surprised and reminded that I could sometimes be too judgmental of books with heavy romantic story lines, especially in the YA realm. I couldn’t have learned that without my blind date.

Overall, my Blind Date With a Book went better than I’ve ever seen or heard of a blind date with an actual person go. I recommend you take advantage of this little novelty if you get the chance. If you already have tried it, I’m curious. How was your blind date? Did I just get lucky? Did you learn anything new about your tastes? Let me know in the comments below.

Book Pilgrimmages: American Gods and The House on the Rock

Sure, books are all about taking you places without physically travelling at all, but what about books you love that take place in real location? Wouldn’t it be really cool to visit these places yourself? Sometimes, you can, and that’s  exactly what I did with the House on the Rock.

When I first read American Gods by Neil Gaiman, I assumed he made up the House on the Rock. It sounded so strange and fantastical, exactly like the sort of place he would create for his mythic America in the novel. Then, in an afterward section, he clarified that it was indeed a real place, which surprised me. Still, I would have no idea how detailed and accurate Gaiman’s depiction of the house would be until years later, when I visited it for myself.

The House on the Rock was one of the most amazing, bizarre places I’ve ever visited. I came away from it not even fully certain how to describe my experience. I decided to refresh my memory of the part the location played in American God’s and reread the small section wherein Shadow and Mr. Wednesday meet with other old gods at the House. When I read the passage just after my visit, I was shocked to find that Gaiman’s words almost perfectly captured every detail of the strange setting, even down to minuscule mechanical displays and and features.

I couldn’t get many decent pictures of all the strange and eerie spectacles at the House on the Rock, because they liked to keep their mood lighting nice and low, and there was so much going on in any given room that even with the flash on I couldn’t capture it all. Still, I took some interesting photos, photos I think are even cooler when you pair them up with Gaiman’s brilliant descriptions of the same spots and props. I may have had a hard time putting to words what I saw in the house, but Gaiman was brilliant, as always.

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“Prim-Lipped Victorian china dolls stared in profusion through dusty store windows, like so many props from respectable horror films.”

Yeah, this is just one close-up glamour shot of a single creepy doll that I was especially sure wanted to watch me while I slept. There were many, many more, and I laughed to myself when I read this quote, happy the eerie Neil Gaiman agreed with me that these dolls belonged in a horror movie.

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“They went farther in, down a red corridor, past rooms filled with empty chairs upon which rested violins or violas that played themselves, or seemed to, when fed a coin. Keys depressed, cymbals crashed, pipes blew compressed air into clarinets and oboes.”

Yes, Shadow was also right to later note in the same passage that the automatic bows on the string instruments don’t always seem to be actually playing the instruments. As far as I could tell, the musical rooms were a mixture of prerecorded songs, and actually played instruments. You can tell a few instruments are really being played because a recording would sound better, actually in tune and all that. The whole picture, no mattered how manufactured or not, is a strangely beautiful one, emphasis on strange.

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they came to a room called the Mikado, one wall of which was a nineteenth-century pseudo-Oriental nightmare, in which  beetle-browed mechanical drummers banged cymbals and drums while staring out from their dragon-encrusted lair. Currently, they were majestically torturing Saint-Saen’s Danse Macabre.”

I was not sure what to call the House’s creator’s fixation on Eastern decor, but in many cases, pseudo-Oriental nightmare was very fitting, both in the unfortunate level of exotic fetishist attitude House creator Jordan exhibited in these displays, and in the way that they genuinely inspired fear and nightmares in me, and probably other guests as well. I would also say “majestically torture” is exactly what these strange robots do to the famous tunes they’ve been created to play.

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…a room that went up for many stories, the center of which was filled entirely with a replica of a great black whalelike beast, with a life-sized replica of a boat in its vast, fiberglass mouth

Yeah, technically the whale beast isn’t in this photo. This is instead the gigantic octopus fighting the three-stories high whale statue, because this house is so crazy that Mr. Gaiman was underselling it on occasion. It was also legitmately difficult to get a decent, well-lit picture of the whale because it was so big, that I couldn’t get enough of the thing in frame to give you a decent idea of what monster you were looking at.

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“…above them hung dozens of angels constructed rather obviously from female store-window mannequins; some of them bared their sexless breasts; some had lost their wigs and stared baldly and blindly down from the darkness.”

Okay, so the angel in this picture, if you can make out against the riot of opulent details in this photo, has both her hair and clothes in this picture, but it was still amusingly obvious that she and her many sisters were probably bought from a Out-of-Business department store, and the wings look incredibly simply and fake as well, but with so many of those strange beings in the same room, amongst all the the other decor, they were still strangely awe-inspiring.

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“And then there was the carousel. A sign proclaimed it was the largest in the world, said how much it weighed, how many thousand lightbulbs were to be found in the chandeliers that hung from it in Gothic profusion.”

Yes, the carousel, the climactic centerpiece of Gaiman’s tour through the house. It is as outrageous and beautiful as he makes it sound, but I didn’t sneak on to ride it, so I’ll never know if it can take you into some other godly dimension or something like it did in the book, but Gaiman was incredibly accurate in his description of the rest of the House, so this could very well be true. Someone just has to go to the House on the Rock, jump the barrier around the carousel, ride one of the crazy animals, and let me know what happens. Thanks in advance guys, really appreciate it.