Erica’s Picks Of the Week: Books with Unique Structures

 Now that summer has officially arrived, it’s time to start finding your perfect summer book! Beach reads, of course, tend to be everyone’s go-to selection this time of year. But while I am a fan of seasonally appropriate reading, sometimes it’s nice to mix things up – to try a title that’s a bit different than your usual fare. While you can easily do that by switching genres, (a biography lover reads scifi, a literary fiction fan tries the latest Scandinavian crime sensation, a mystery reader checks out a buzzy romance), you can also look for a story with an unusual format – something that not only tells a great story, but encourages you to think about structure can affect a story’s meaning. Here are two I’ve recently enjoyed (and they’re not too heavy, because it is summer, after all).

Thurber Prize-winning DEAR COMMITTEE MEMBERS, by Julie Schumacher, follows Jason Figter, dyspeptic creative writing professor and once-promising novelist, as he navigates budget cuts, interdepartmental battles, run-ins with his ex-wife, and an office that is literally falling down around his ears. Fitger’s story unfolds as he writes an endless stream of recommendation letters for both students and colleagues, some of whom he doesn’t like – and a few he doesn’t even know. With every letter, Fitger grows a little more unhinged, allowing us to see both his self-importance and his selflessness. Many of his troubles can be laid directly at his feet, though he’d be loath to admit it, but we also see him fighting the good (if impossible) fight.

Over the course of the school year, he transforms from a cranky antihero into someone more nuanced and sympathetic, without ever turning maudlin or sickly-sweet. It’s a darkly funny, perceptive look at academia and the only-too-human beings who reside there.

Mary Adkins’ WHEN YOU READ THIS is an epistolary novel for the digital age, incorporating blog posts, text messages, and illustrations alongside the traditional letter/email format. As the book opens, we learn that Iris Massey has died, leaving behind her Simon, her PR business partner; Jade, her Michelin-starred chef sister, and a wildly popular blog about terminal illness – as well as a note asking Simon to get the blog published as a book.  Simon, however, is dealing with plenty of problems of his own: ridiculous clients, a “helpful” new intern, a dementia-addled mother and a smidge of embezzlement, all while reeling from Iris’s death. Even so, he’s determined to fulfill her last wish, though it means getting permission from grief-stricken Jade, who hates him on sight.

The book is warm-hearted, particularly as we watch the gradual development of Simon and Jade’s relationship, but it’s also bracingly funny. Simon’s struggles to deal with his clients’ egos while keeping his self-important, perennially clueless intern escalate to delightful, disastrous heights. Iris’s illustrated blog posts add weight to the story without overwhelming it. And in the end, the mixed-media format helps to highlight how digital connections can bring people together in the real world.

If you’re looking for something different this summer, try either of these titles, or visit the reference desk for more suggestions about unusual formats – we’ve all got our favorites, and we’re happy to share!

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