Most of us read novels because we want to hear interesting stories about the lives of people who are relatable, but not exactly like us. The life story is a backbone of fiction, but it’s all too easy for yet another one of these novels to get trapped in the same sort of style. Not so for the three books in this week’s book club: Each one of them takes on the life story, but adds its own particular twist to the proceedings. Read on for letters, graphics, and a totally new take on an old tale.
1. Nuclear Family: A Tragicomic Novel in Letters by Susanna Fogel ($16): Fogel, of the New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs” column, writes this epistolary work (a book comprised only of letters or documents) to take us through the life of Julie Feller, as seen through years-long correspondence with her family. All we know about Julie is developed through this series of notes. There are letters to Julie at summer camp, a list of increasingly bizarre “house rules” from her aunt, and an apology note from her mother for barging in on her doing something, uh, private (yes, the book goes straight to acute embarrassment very quickly), slipped under her door. There are even chat conversations with Julie’s hyper sister, conducted, naturally, in text-speak.
The book is filled with evocative titles and jokes, such as “Your Mom Wanted to Run Her First Yelp Review by You,” “Your Dad Is Less Than Thrilled About Your Childhood Dream” and “Your Sister Said Something Racist to Your Dad’s New Girlfriend.” We get to know Julie through the way her family writes to and about her: her mom’s painfully well-meaning attempts to understand, various foibles by various relatives, her dad’s negotiations with her over Hanukkah presents and career choices. “Unfortunately, as I told your mother, I do not think this is a sound investment, for reasons having nothing to do with our religious beliefs,” he writes, of the request for a video game. “The fact of the matter is that I am well aware of current research studies in my field on the long-term effects of video games on brain chemistry. As their results are yet unproven, I would be as negligent in allowing my own daughter to be a test case for this potential mental erosion as I would in allowing her to ingest off-market SSRIs in Phase One clinical trials.”
It’s not just family that gets in on the action, though; even the less-animate objects in Julie’s life lovingly send missives. Julie’s IUD, her dead gerbil, and the NordicTrack left to languish all get in on the fun. (“Forgive me if I sound bleak,” the NordicTrack writes. “As a Scandinavian, I have a predisposition toward fatalism.”) This slim but hilarious volume gives us a great sense of Julie’s life in an unconventional and quirky way.
2. Arbitrary Stupid Goal by Tamara Shopsin ($27): Graphic designer and illustrator Shopsin’s twist to her autobiography makes use of her multifarious talents. Her tales of growing up an heir to her family’s famous Shopsin’s market and diner in 1970s Greenwich Village are not only populated with excellent gossip about the celebrities that frequented the counter (John Belushi and Kennedy, Jr., Calvin Trillin) but are illustrated via graphics, line drawings, and photographs for a real sense of time and place and a “pointillist” aesthetic.
Written in choppy, often mysterious paragraphs, Shopsin’s story is one about growing up in a wild, happy, but sometimes dangerous world. Never fully nostalgic, she acknowledges the racially motivated beatings, violence, and rampant drug culture, while sketching out a world that was exciting and creative, more community than condo and more hedonism than helicopter parent. (The Shopsin kids were allowed to roam the city via subway from an age that might have today’s parents clutching their pearls.) That’s the spirit behind her outspoken father Kenny’s declaration that everyone needs an “arbitrary stupid goal,” something that isn’t important enough to control or ruin your life, but that gives you a cause and motivation. “The carrot wasn’t that important,” he says, “but chasing it was.” Fitting, Shopsin declares, for an area of town with the same name as Greenwich, England, whose prime meridian line is as arbitrary as it gets.
Of Greenwich Village’s name, Shopsin writes, “Copying your old neighbor is an unimaginative way to name a place. I feel this, but I also come from a family that named their family store ‘The Store’.” That might not be particularly creative, but the twisty Arbitrary Stupid Goal is creatively packed with indelible characters and the charm of a New York long since changed. Full of vision and heart, it’s anything but arbitrary.
3. Hook’s Tale: Being the Account of an Unjustly Villainized Pirate Written by Himself by John Leonard Pielmeier ($25): The story of Peter Pan is a pretty familiar one, and it’s been told in a number of ways, from a book to an animated feature to a part of a Johnny Depp movie to a musical of said movie (and then, well, there’s “Hook”). In this version, playwright Pielmeier tells the story through the eyes of the crocodile-bitten pirate, who single-handedly (sorry) takes us through his spin on the events. Needless to say, this is a Hook who protests his innocence.
“Everything you think you know about me is a lie,” claims the titular Hook, who tells us that his birth name is actually James Cook, and he’s a descendant of the famed British explorer. After his father’s disappearance, a miserable time at Eton, and his mother’s passing, Cook decides to run away from it all. At 13, he’s kidnapped and forced to work as a cabin boy on a ship that goes out to sea and finds itself in temporal flux. A map leads him to the “Never-Isles,” where he meets Smee and Tiger Lily, as one would expect. What’s different is almost all of Hook’s relationships and actions: He adopts the crocodile that is initially more loving than terrifying, and even teaches Peter Pan how to fly. It’s Peter who’s cast as the problem, with short-term memory issues and a vicious, even deadly, sense of fun.
Presented as a newly discovered historical document, and chock full of Victorian references and cameos (Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, and the cast of Treasure Island all make appearances), the novel even includes JM Barrie, the “dour Scotsman” himself. Hook, of course, is no fan of Barrie’s, as the man has gotten it all wrong and besmirched his reputation. Of course, his admission that all his initial troubles stem from embellishing his story means that it’s up to you to decide whose version is correct. It’s a new twist on a familiar story that never does grow old.
What books make you see things in a new light? Tag us in your next inventive read @BritandCo.
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