The Hub

News, Notes, Talk

Here are five contemporary epistolary novels you should read.

Vanessa Willoughby

December 7, 2021, 2:14pm

A great novel doesn’t have to follow conventional form. In the hands of a skilled writer, a story that departs from the traditional narrative structure can be compelling, engaging, and insightful. Today is National Letter Writing Day, which got me thinking about books that are told entirely in written correspondence. The below list is not definitive but provides a small sample of contemporary epistolary novels that beg to be read.


The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Initially published in 1999, this YA cult classic is about a 15-year-old high school student named Charlie, who pens his most intimate thoughts to an unnamed friend. During the course of his freshman year, Charlie learns about the restorative power of friendship, the pains of heartbreak, and what it means to truly belong. Chbosky’s narrative voice perfectly embodies all the uncertainties and anxieties of adolescence, crafting an endearing, sympathetic protagonist. The novel also handles the subjects of mental illness, sexual abuse, and suicide with considerable care. Perks has lasting staying power because it has real heart. Like The Catcher in the Rye (which Charlie mentions reading), Perks captures universal aspects of growing up. The book was made into a feature film in 2012 and starred Logan Lerman as Charlie, Emma Watson as Sam Button, and Ezra Miller as Patrick Stewart.

The Color Purple

Alice Walker, The Color Purple

Alice Walker’s 1982 novel won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction—and for good reasons. Walker’s prose is striking and the epistolary form emphasizes Celie’s emotional, taxing journey to self-actualization and autonomy. In 1985, Steven Spielberg adapted the book for film. Spielberg’s adaptation was nominated for 11 Academy Awards but secured none, which some critics and general viewers regarded as evidence of the institution’s racial biasThe Color Purple was also made into a musical in 2005, opening at the Broadway Theatre in Manhattan. In a 2019 interview with ArtsATL, Walker discussed the book’s timeless appeal: “Faulkner said, ‘The past is not past.’ I think that’s it. It’s still continuing to do incredibly well in so many parts of the world. For instance, the play was in South Africa, where it was a huge smash. Somewhere in Canada, it was directed by a black woman, and that had never happened there . . . When we have dealt with all of these issues in another century, it won’t be relevant. Until then, I do feel that women and men respond to it because it is fresh enough so that they can feel that visceral connection of ancestors.”

The Historian

Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian

You don’t need to have read Dracula to thoroughly enjoy Kostova’s sweeping novel that blends cultural lore and literary history. A young woman discovers a set of weathered letters in her father’s library, which ultimately leads to the quest to unearth the truth about Dracula. Kostova brings a new, refreshing take on classic vampire mythology. In a 2017 Reddit AMA, Kostova said of her creative process: “I think the really oblique angle of the plot of The Historian is the fact that it’s told in documents, something I borrowed from Stoker’s Dracula and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone—and other novels. I didn’t name the main character because I was interested in seeing if I could make her actually more real that way—she’s telling her story herself, and we don’t name ourselves in our heads as we think and live!”

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

This debut novel took the literary world by storm and was longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal in Fiction, the 2019 Aspen Words Literacy Prize, and the PEN/Hemingway Debut Novel Award. The book is structured as a letter to the narrator’s mother, Little Dog uncovers the unknown depths of his family history. Vuong’s prose aptly explores the concept of how writing can form a pathway to freedom. Reviewing for NPR, Heller McAlpin called Vuong’s debut “a painful but extraordinary coming-of-age story about surviving the aftermath of trauma.”

I Love Dick

Chris Kraus, I Love Dick

First published in 1997, Chris Kraus’s novel combines fiction and memoir to chronicle the extramarital obsession of a struggling female filmmaker. The book structures the narrative in letters from “Chris Kraus” to “Dick ______” (his full name is never revealed). In a 2006 Q&A with Selah Saterstrom, Kraus reflected on the process of writing the seminal novel: “I thought I was doing a high giddy job of performing philosophy. Naturally this writing was very physical, and I was terribly shocked when it was widely perceived at face value, as a cheap confession. Because in the book I talked over and over again about operating at a Third Remove, using a Kierkegaardian sense of irony when dealing with the banal facts that comprise straight female life: the Crush, when will he call me?” The novel was adapted for TV and released via Amazon Prime Video in 2016 but was canceled after one season.

A novelist is suing Amazon for selling “centuries-old” copies of his book for over $1000.


December 7, 2021, 12:52pm

Science fiction thriller writer John C. Boland is suing Amazon for letting copies of over eight of his books be sold on their website for exorbitant prices—and with false publication dates attached. As the New York Times reported in a larger piece, Boland found copies of his book Hominid listed on Amazon as having been published in the seventeenth-century and priced between $907 and $987. (The book’s actual price is $15.) Another book of his was listed on Amazon for $1008, when Boland himself sold the book for $7.

In the suit, Boland says Amazon breached its publishing services agreement with him, and allowed him to be defamed by selling fake editions of his books: “When a seller claims to have a 1602 edition that it’s charging nearly $1,000 for, it’s defaming me by implying that the book existed before I wrote it — i.e., that I’m a plagiarist,” Boland told the Times.

For their part, Amazon has denied responsibility, arguing in court papers that under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, they aren’t responsible for the actions of fraudulent third-party sellers—just like how Facebook and Twitter can’t be sued for posts their users make. But just like Facebook and Twitter, Amazon has struggled with how to police their users: for instance, in 2019, the Wall Street Journal found that Amazon’s marketplace sold 4100 items that had “been declared unsafe by federal agencies,” and this year COVID-skeptical books with false medical claims topped Amazon’s bestseller lists, creating a feedback loop of popularity.

According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which is often critical of Amazon, in 2019 Amazon made $60 billion in fees it charged third-party sellers, and this year it will make $121 billion.

“We do not allow the activity Mr. Boland observed and are working to correct it,” Amazon said in a statement. “It appears only a small number of these books were sold by third-party sellers in our store, and we have no evidence that any were counterfeit. We are investigating how this occurred.”

Take a look, it’s (still) in a book: Reading Rainbow is coming back.


December 7, 2021, 12:12pm

Good news for parents desperate for someone, anyone, to give them some tiny sliver of help raising their children! No, no one has announced plans to address the nationwide shortage of daycare workers, but at least Reading Rainbow is coming back!

The original series, hosted by LeVar Burton, ran on PBS from 1983 to 2006, and won 26 Emmys (in fact, there’s a whole separate Wikipedia page for Reading Rainbow‘s accolades). It was developed as a response to the  “summer loss phenomena,” in which children’s literacy skills regressed over the summer because they weren’t reading as much. Each episode centered around a picture book (often read by a celebrity guest), and featured different segments related to the book’s themes.

Tragically, Burton won’t return to host the updated version, Reading Rainbow Live. Instead, “a diverse, talented and comedic troupe of young performers” will take over hosting duties. There will also be an interactive component to the show, via a virtual platform.

“We know it was a tough pandemic for parents, for caregivers, for teachers. We wanted to make sure that we have kids engaging with books and we’re going to use movement and music to engage kids in learning,” the show’s creative director, Amy Guglielmo, told CBS News.

Well, it’s no universal childcare, but that is perhaps too high a bar for a single television show! Nevertheless, it sounds very nice.


[via CBS]

Sandra Newman is writing a feminist retelling of Nineteen Eighty-Four.


December 7, 2021, 11:18am

As The Guardian reported this morning, George Orwell’s estate has approved Sandra Newman’s Julia, a retelling of Nineteen Eighty-Four from the perspective of Julia, the woman with whom Winston Smith has an illicit affair before they are captured and re-educated by their totalitarian government.

According to The Guardian, Orwell’s estate said it had been “looking for some time” for an author to tell Julia’s story, and Newman “proved to be the perfect fit.” “Two of the unanswered questions in Orwell’s novel are what Julia sees in Winston, and how she has navigated her way through the party hierarchy,” said Bill Hamilton, the estate’s literary executor. “Sandra gets under the skin of Big Brother’s world in a completely convincing way which is both true to the original but also gives a dramatically different narrative to stand alongside the original.” According to Granta, Newman’s publisher, George Orwell’s son Richard Blair has also approved the project.

“It was the man from Records who began it, him all unknowing in his prim, grim way, his above-it-all oldthink way,” the novel opens. “He was the one Syme called ‘Old Misery.’ Comrade Smith was his right name, though ‘Comrade’ never suited him somehow. Of course, if you felt foolish calling someone ‘Comrade,’ far better not to speak to them at all.”

This project follows Newman’s upcoming novel The Men, which chronicles the events following the disappearance of every person on earth with a Y chromosome.

19 new books to find at your local bookstore.

Katie Yee

December 7, 2021, 5:06am

Consider this your weekly reminder to drop in at your local indie. Maybe think of this list as your scavenger hunt. How many can you find? How many will you get?!


Tabitha Lasley, Sea State: A Memoir

Tabitha Lasley, Sea State

“What sets Lasley apart as a genuinely exceptional writer is her ability to first spot, and then effectively relay, the small yet defining details of a person, scene or experience.”
–The Irish Times

Siri Hustvedt, Mothers, Fathers, and Others: Essays

Siri Hustvedt, Mothers, Fathers, and Others
(Simon & Schuster)

“Another outstanding compilation of essays from Hustvedt … Brilliant and utterly transfixing.”

Juhea Kim, Beasts of a Little Land

Juhea Kim, Beasts of a Little Land

“Kim’s debut novel wondrously reveals broken families and surprising alliances created by uncontrollable circumstances.”

Accidental Gods

Anna Della Subin, Accidental Gods
(Metropolitan Books)

Accidental Gods is one of those carefully researched books of nonfiction guaranteed to make you feel smarter by the end … Underneath its fascinating parade of ideas and historical snippets, the structure and sequencing are truly elegant.”

Bright Burning Things

Lisa Harding, Bright Burning Things

“Intense and unnerving … There’s a lot to lament, and even more to rail against, in a novel that becomes a ferocious jeremiad against life’s suffocating forces.”
–The Guardian

sasa stanisic_where you come from

Damion Searls, tr. Sasa Stanisic, Where You Come From
(Tin House)

“The novel is determined to surprise and unmoor readers, perhaps in the same way the author/protagonist found the course of his own life surprising and disconcerting, with the author’s restless imagination a constant, delightful companion.”
–Shelf Awareness

Robert Gottlieb, Garbo: Her Life, Her Films

Robert Gottlieb, Garbo

“Gottlieb’s research is so complete and his style so engaging that this book almost reads like an oral biography told through a singular voice.”
–Library Journal

Jim Harrison Completed poems

Jim Harrison, Jim Harrison: Complete Poems
(Copper Canyon Press)

“This immense volume will bring great pleasure to readers of James Wright and John Haines and may be the perfect lure for ardent readers of Harrison’s fiction; they will find many poems to cherish.”
–Library Journal

sharon gless_apparently there were complaints

Sharon Gless, Apparently There Were Complaints
(Simon & Schuster)

“Emmy Award–winning actor Gless debuts with a no-holds-barred look at her long and storied career.”
–Publishers Weekly

Francesco Pacifico, tr. Elizabeth Harris, The Women I Love

Francesco Pacifico, tr. Eizabeth Harris, The Women I Love

“The protagonist’s ambivalent, messy emotions propel this amusing foray. It adds up to a darkly funny exploration of entanglements and terminal self-regard.”
–Publishers Weekly

the cat who saved books

Sosuke Natsuwaka, tr. Louise Heal Kawai, The Cat Who Saved Books

“Cats, books, young love, and adventure: catnip for a variety of readers!”

Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry, The Bright Ages

“…an appealing account of a millennium packed with culture, beauty, science, learning, and the rise and fall of empires.”

out of office

Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen, Out of Office

“Never sacrificing meaningful analysis for easy answers, this is a remarkable examination of the rapidly-changing workplace.”
–Publishers Weekly

Joe Moshenska, Making Darkness Light: A Life of John Milton

Joe Moshenska, Making Darkness Light
(Basic Books)

“The author draws his reader, not only into the life and world of his subject, but into a sort of lived experience of Milton’s approach to poetry.”
–The Boston Globe

Obed Silva, The Death of My Father the Pope

“The power of The Death of My Father the Pope lies in Silva’s willingness to address even this; he never looks away. His book is an unrequited love story, told in fragments, through the lens of death.”
–Los Angeles Times

Tell Me How to Be

Neel Patel, Tell Me How to Be

“Patel skillfully maneuvers through the treacherous territory of abandoned dreams, family squabbles, and cultural clashes before finding a resounding catharsis for mother and son. The result is noteworthy and memorable.”
–Publishers Weekly

white on white

Aysegül Savas, White on White

“Propelled by a rich voice and sharp eye, and ultimately offering an insightful study of the decay wrought by time on relationships and identity, White on White stands as both a well-defined and well-executed work in its own right and a prime example of the evolutionary process of the novel as an art form.”
–The Chicago Review of Books

Gary Goodman_the Last Bookseller

Gary Goodman, The Last Bookseller
(University of Minnesota Press)

“He tells his tale like a man who has seen a thing or two and lived to tell about it, a story best unwound over a beer in the corner of a dive bar.”
–Star Tribune

call us what we carry_amanda gorman

Amanda Gorman, Call Us What We Carry

“By affirming this link between memory and water, between body and country, Gorman points to the importance of remembering what came before us … Ultimately, Call Us What We Carry points to this inherent hope.”