letters and diaries as page-turners... why?
i don't want to read your diary. Or your letters. But these I want to read...
I don’t like the idea of a novel written as letters (or emails. or texts. or What’s App posts). But somehow, I often like the execution. I might not even click on a novel in that format. Or, for that matter, a memoir done as a diary entries. But again—when it’s done well, not only do I really like it… I somehow can’t stop turning the pages.
I think it’s the snack-ability of the format. In knitting we joke about “popcorn knitting” where you just can’t resist doing one more row. Lays chips are famous because you “can’t eat just one”. Diary entries, letters… they’re short. Punchy. The writer uses few words and relies on the reader to know what they’re talking about (even when, as with a published diary-memoir, they’ve gone back to help us remember, or learn, that Koko is the dog and Tessa helps in the bookstore.
All of that means, when I’m reading a good book in this format, I do find it oddly hard to put down. I always want to read just a little more.
But when you DO put them down, they’re easy to dive back into, which makes them perfect books for a moment when you’re not likely to spend a few hours reading for a while, or to intersperse with other books.
I’ve got two good ones going at the moment:
Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher, is by way of being a bit of a classic. It even won the Thurber Prize for American Humor (which is a label that excites me a lot more than the Booker or the National Book Award). I’ll name drop and say that Andy Borowitz recommended it to me and then add that we were at a local event where the entire point was to recommend books. (I adore doing these. And the bookstore sold $3000 of books in an hour.) In it, a disgruntled academic writes a series of meandering, discursive letters of recommendation for various colleagues and students, in which he reveals all the ways his professional, romantic and writing life have not lived up to his expectations.
The flap copy says every letter “is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies.” What could be better than that? (Another fave in this vein—Love, Nina, by Nina Stibbe, the letters of a young writer who became a nanny in the household of the editor of the London Review of Books.)
And, in alternating doses depending on the time and my mood, I’m savoring Diary of a Tuscan Bookshop. (Possibly the only title more designed to make certain among us shriek take my money would be “A Bookstore in Provence”. That doesn’t exist, yet. But it would make bank.)
It’s an early copy—coming out in May. Pre-order it, especially if you loved Shaun Bythell’s Diary of a Bookseller as I did, and give yourself a little treat. It’s far less churly and thus a little less amusing, but it’s soothing and delightful in the vein of a modern 84 Charing Cross Road, and the contrast between the ancient village setting and the modern events is endless pleasure. I worried, because it’s an Italian bookstore, that I wouldn’t recognize any of the books she talked about, but it turns out English-language books (some in translation, some not) are everywhere.
Some page-turners have you on the edge of your seat. Others help you cuddle into it. The best reading months include both.
PS: It’s come to my attention that LOTS of you don’t even know I have a second book out there. If you loved The Chicken Sisters, trust me, you’ll get a kick out of In Her Boots, too. (See what I did there? It makes the book sound dumb. I should take it out. But I’m not going to.) Just know that it’s about the adult we know we are, the kid our mothers will always see and our terrible fear that our moms are right—but it’s ALSO about an accidental literary hoax, a family farm and bffs who will do anything to help each other show the world who they really are.
And please pre-order Playing the Witch Card! If you’re a person who reads on Edelweiss or NetGalley, it’s now available on both. (Early review sites for booksellers and reviewers—if it’s you, you’ll know it. Otherwise you get to wait!)
Did someone send you this? Did you chance upon it? Wouldn’t you like your own?
I’m doing this at the moment! I’m using WhatsApp conversations as a flashback to the lockdown winter of 2020-21 (because we all communicated like that then) and then more standard narrative prose for the ‘present day’ timeline - so although it’s a novel with dual timelines it will always be super easy to tell which timeline you’re reading.