Val Emmich on the Books that Strike the Balance

“My favorite novels blend comedy and tragedy. That was my goal for The Reminders — to write a book that was fun and playful but also weighty and introspective. Not all of the books listed below strike that balance, but each informed how I ultimately settled on the right emotional timbre for my novel.” — Val Emmich




The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet
By Reif Larsen

“Beautifully intricate illustrations fill the margins of nearly every page of this one-of-a-kind novel about a twelve-year-old cartographer on his way to claim an award from the Smithsonian Institution. Larsen’s ambition is only slightly less impressive than his execution. For all its whimsy, the book has real heart. Stephen King called it a ‘treasure.'”

A Single Man
By Christopher Isherwood

“Lyrical and heartrending. Isherwood masterfully captures the zombie-like existence that is life after loss. The memories arriving unbidden. The effort required to seem okay for the benefit of others. The daily shock upon waking to find that the person you built your life around is truly gone and the path ahead is no longer certain, ‘as though the track had disappeared down a landslide.'”

This Is Where I Leave You
By Jonathan Tropper

“Tropper’s novel begins with the line ‘Dad’s dead.’ The first line in my book is ‘Dad forgot me.’ That was an accident. Or was it? This book is a joy to read, and a joyful reading experience is something I cherish more and more as I get older. Hanging with the Foxmans is like spending time with my own dysfunctional family — only here, after all the laughs, I get to walk away with no hard feelings.”

All the Birds, Singing
By Evie Wyld

“I remember turning to my wife while reading this book and saying, ‘This is insane.’ I was referring both to the story on the page and the achievement of writing it. It has the energy and drama of a thriller, but it’s more nuanced than that, and ultimately more devastating. Wyld brings her protagonist Jake’s past to life in a way that makes us truly believe she can’t get out from under it.”

About a Boy
By Nick Hornby

“I learned a lot watching how Hornby juggled this dual narrative of an adult and a child. Two drastically different characters come together with hysterically awkward results. But then we realize, Oh, this guy and this kid aren’t that different after all. Actually, we can’t even tell which one is the grown-up and which is the boy. Hornby makes all of this look easy. It’s not.”

Giovanni’s Room
By James Baldwin

“Reading this book while writing mine was probably a mistake. I can never hope to write half as movingly as Baldwin does here (or anywhere). But it was something to aspire to. Particularly how Baldwin viscerally captures feelings of longing, regret, and desire. As everyone already knows, this novel is a classic.”


Where’d You Go, Bernadette
By Maria Semple

“For all the attention Where’d You Go, Bernadette gets for its hilarity (and it really is hilarious; one of the rare times ‘laugh-out-loud’ holds true), the book is unexpectedly moving. Part of that has to with its inspired formatting (told through emails, faxes, hospital reports, live-blog transcripts). By sorting through the modern detritus they’ve left behind, we somehow know these characters more intimately than we could even if allowed inside their minds.”

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
By Jonathan Safran Foer

“This is the best example on the list of a novel that can do both: make you laugh and cry. It’s also a detective story and a moving exploration of grief. I admire Foer’s bravery and audacity as a writer. With all its typographical quirks (photographs, full-color pages, text that keeps decreasing in size until it’s too tiny to read), this is a book you want to own a physical copy of. And don’t watch the movie.”