What Exactly is BookTok and Why Does it Matter?

The video app TikTok has popularized many new trends such as dance moves, fashion styles, and music. It has also popularized the posting of book critiques or recommendations on the app. Many young people on TikTok regularly upload videos about books and authors. This is “BookTok.” 

TikTok shows you content based on previous likes and watches. If someone watches a lot of videos with dogs in them, they will be in the communal flow of people who also watch and make dog videos. They are now on “DogTok.” BookTok works the same. 

BookTok influencers make videos about new books, old books, overrated books, problematic books—you name it. Each influencer has their own flavor. Some focus more on humor while others simply provide a running list of books that you should read and why. This Vogue article does a fantastic job at highlighting different influencers and giving a short summary about their page. 

Many places in the bookselling or publishing industry are using BookTok to their own advantage. Barnes & Noble started putting up a section dedicated to selling BookTok’s most favored recommendations, like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid or People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry. Even local bookstores have jumped on the trend like Boston’s Trident Cafe and Booksellers who have a BookTok shelf display. A lot of writers have also found a place on BookTok either to share their latest project or to join in the reading fun themselves. Authors like Victoria Aveyard of the bestselling Red Queen series have become very popular on BookTok for sharing publishing and drafting advice as well as hinting at future projects for fans of her work. 

Popular literary blogger, “Caitsbooks” delves into the history of BookTok in this article. Cait, a BookTok creator herself, stated that in 2019, there was little to no book related content on TikTok. There were a few creators such as herself and a few others, as well as publishing houses’ corporate pages. It wasn’t until March 2020 that Cait’s page started blowing up, gaining 204.5 thousand followers and 8.1 million likes overall. Clearly, the beginning of the pandemic lockdown caused readers to venture onto TikTok for recommendations.This not only helped Cait’s channel, but also many other proto BookTok influencers. BookTok’s influence skyrocketed, landing on thousands of people’s “For You pages” and becoming more popular. Cait writes in her blog, “Publishers are starting to realize the impact BookTok can have. Not only are many of them on the platform themselves, but they’ll send BookTokers early copies of books so they can discuss them on their page, as well as pay BookTokers to make videos about books they’re looking to promote.” 

That being said, Cait as well as many others on TikTok have foreseen future consequences of BookTok. Frequent TikToker Emily Roberts had this to say about BookTok: “With BookTok I think you have to get lucky. It’s so saturated with the same recommendations from so many users that it gets annoying sometimes. But, every once in a while you find a hidden gem that calls your name.” 

Cait made a similar statement in her blog. She writes, “With large influxes of new creators, authors, and publishers, I imagine oversaturation of creators might become an issue. And now that the marketing successes of BookTok has gained attention, I can also see more promotional content being made, which might cause those who joined for authenticity to lose interest. However, I don’t think these issues will permanently affect BookTok.” 

BookTok has certainly encouraged a lot of people to read, as well as transformed readers into reviewers and influencers. Its future at the moment is undecided, but Booktok is changing the way books reach readers and how publishers see feedback as well as providing a platform to to explore people’s different tastes and opinions on books. If this article made you curious, just download the app TikTok and search the hashtag “#BookTok” to get started. 

-Isabella

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Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is Still Wildly Popular After Almost 30 Years — Is it Worth the Read?

If you’re a fan of books with dark themes, eccentric characters, and tons of twists and turns, you’ve probably heard of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Tartt—a Pulitzer Prize winning author—famously combines all these elements in The Secret History, creating a story that has been haunting readers since it was published in 1992.  

The Secret History, set in the 1980s, follows a mysterious, tight-knit group of Classics students at Hampden College, an elite liberal arts school in New England. The school is fictional, but heavily inspired by Bennington College in Vermont, Tartt’s alma mater. The story is told from the perspective of Richard Papen, a new student who slowly immerses himself into this group of friends. However, as he becomes tangled into their web of secrets, he finds himself unable to escape their gravity and unsure of who to trust. 

Tartt creates an ominous academic atmosphere from the beginning through her descriptions of the characters and their school. Details like the 1980s fashion, dialogue in untranslated Greek and Latin, and privileged backgrounds of each character gives the reader a deep understanding of the group of friends and their loyalty to one another. Tartt does not hold back her vivid imagery of the quaint New England college town, transporting the reader right to Hampden. The aesthetic of the setting and dynamics between characters are some of the most notable elements of The Secret History. 

However, while it is easy to enjoy the atmosphere of the book, The Secret History may not be the ideal reading choice for everyone. While the book is full of plot twists, lavish writing, and jaw-dropping moments, it also has heavy themes, unlikable characters, and some slow stretches that can make it feel like a long 544 pages. If you’re intrigued by the premise but unsure if it’s worth the read, here are some things you should know before you start:

If you love a story with morally gray characters, you’re in luck, because that describes every single character in this book. From an objective standpoint, the friends in The Secret History do not have the clearest moral compasses and are sometimes unbearably pretentious, but since Richard is telling their side of the story, it is easier for the reader to understand the reasoning behind their actions. Their selfish motivations and desperate attempts at self-preservation are deliciously dramatic. 

On a similar note, if you’re a fan of unreliable narrators in books, The Secret History is practically a masterclass in the subject. Richard is an interesting narrator because his fascination with his classmates skews the reader’s perception. While they are not exceptionally good people, they are Richard’s friends, and he does not see their flaws as a more removed narrator might. 

Additionally, Donna Tartt’s writing is great at luring you in, but it is more drawn out than other authors. For reference, many paragraphs stretch almost a page long (with pretty small font size) and the chapters are roughly 70 pages each. Between the action, much of the book takes place while the group is in class, studying, or drinking at someone’s country home. While this might be appealing to people who like a lot of character exploration, it can seem unnecessary to others. 

Finally, do not expect a happy ending with a clear resolution. Without spoiling anything, this story is not the kind that gets tied up with a pretty bow at the end. 


The Secret History may be a top book recommendation for people who love suspense stories and academia, but if you are looking for a light read, fun-loving characters, or a pleasant escape from reality, you may want to take another look at your bookshelf. However, if you’re ready for a brooding, twisty roller coaster that will leave you shaken to the core, this is exactly the story you’ve been waiting for.

Kathleen

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The Rise of Queer Girl Literature

It’s June again, which means it is Pride Month; a time in the United States when we honor and recognize the LGBTQ+ community. Since The Stonewall Riots occurred on June 28, 1969, the LGBTQ+ community has taken to celebrating their identities every June. While Pride is a celebration, it is also a protest where the community calls for protection, rights, and representation. It’s a kind of revolutionary party, if you will. While you might not get to a Pride parade this year, there are many other ways to support and lift up the queer community. Luckily, one of those ways is reading. While the fight is not over, representation continues to grow especially in the realm of publishing. Specifically in the genre of Young Adult, books written by and about queer people are taking the industry by storm. 

In past years, LGBTQ+ representation has mainly centered around gay characters in books. Popular examples are Simon Vs The Homosapien Agenda by Becky Albertalli and Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. This trend continued, but many readers noticed the absence of sapphic and lesbian representation in YA books. Alaina Leary wrote about this in 2019 for Bustle in an article titled “Where Are All The YA Books About Queer Girls?” Leary writes specifically about why Queer Girl books are hard to find, but points out how much value they have. She ends by stating that there is a hungry audience and plenty of talented writers to do the job. Leary writes, “The cycle is fueled by a lack of promotional support for queer girl books…and a lack of visibility for these stories. Marketing buzz, financial support, and word of mouth recommendations are three things that help create visibility in the book industry…When publishing houses prioritize LGBTQIA+ stories and market them widely, they’re sending the message that these books are worthwhile.” But that was 2019. While many steps still need to be taken on the road to equal representation, the industry has shifted in a better direction. All it takes is a quick google search of “sapphic books 2021” and you will be hit with many compiled lists of new releases with sapphic and queer women. 

A popular and anticipated release is She Who Became The Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan which is described on Goodreads as “Mulan meets The Song of Achilles in Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, a bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty from an amazing new voice in literary fantasy.” This is the first in a series called The Radiant Emperor with a  release date of July 20th. 

Another “queer girl” book that  came out in early June is One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston, the bestselling author of Red, White, and Royal Blue. Both are LGBTQ books, but this is McQuiston’s first romance starring women. One Last Stop tells the story of 23-year-old August’s humdrum life and her subway commute crush, Jane. Only there’s something off about Jane—she’s actually a punk rocker from the 1970s who is stuck in August’s time. A delightful romance mixed with some science fiction, readers are definitely looking forward to.

There are so many wonderful novels and series installments that feature queer women and their experiences. And many of them are women of color’s stories as well. Alaina Leary quotes another author in her article, “Queer women are not just part of the LGBTQ+ community, we’re in communities of color. We’re part of religious communities. We’re queer girls with disabilities,” says Anna-Marie McLemore, author of magical realist novels rooted in her queer identity and Latina heritage, including Wild Beauty, Blanca & Roja, and the forthcoming Dark and Deepest Red. “Our identities intersect with so many identities. Without acknowledging that, the world loses not only our stories, but a piece of so many different communities.” So when shopping at your local bookstore or favorite online site, consider buying and supporting these authors and their stories. What better way to celebrate pride than uplifting queer women and getting a great book out of it? 

-Isabella Rodrigues

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Celebrating the Beautiful World of Eric Carle

Author and illustrator Eric Carle, who has added color and joy to the world through his children’s books since 1969, passed away on May 23, 2021. Carle, 91, died at his studio in Massachusetts after a lifetime of publishing over 70 children’s books in more than 100 languages. His legacy as a writer and artist will live on as families continue to share childhood classics like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? with their children.

Carle said that a child once called him a “picture writer,” citing this as the best description of his job. While his stories are sweet and inspiring, his unique style of art is what distinguishes his work from other picture book authors. On his website, he wrote a detailed explanation as to how he made the artwork for his books. “I begin with plain tissue paper and paint it with different colors, using acrylic paint,” he said. He then painted over the tissue paper with brushes of all different sizes, and even included materials like carpet, sponge, burlap, and stamps to give it more texture. Carle noted that he considered it the highest compliment when a child said they felt like they could make art through collaging too.

Although he was an industry professional, Carle deeply cared for his primary audience—children. His website showcases his brightly colored and uniquely textured artwork that children love. Additionally, all of his answers to questions on the FAQ page are written in simple and personal language so that younger children can fulfill their curiosity about his books. In 2019, Carle was asked in an interview why he thinks The Very Hungry Caterpillar has been so universally successful, and he replied: “It is a book of hope. Children need hope. You, a little insignificant caterpillar, can grow up into a big beautiful butterfly and fly into the world with your talent.” In his work, he inspired children to value not just hope, but growth, learning, and creativity.

Carle’s legacy will also continue through The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, located in Amherst, Massachusetts. The museum provides its guests with the opportunity to learn about children’s literature over the last century, and hosts educational programs for children to fully immerse themselves in the stories they read. The mission of the museum “is to inspire a love of art and reading through picture books.”

Although he is no longer with us, Eric Carle has undoubtedly had an impact on millions of people, whether it be children who read his books growing up or adults who share those stories with the kids in their life (or who simply love the nostalgia that comes with them.) His books will continue to bring joy to millions of people, and remind them that though it may take time, we all become beautiful butterflies.

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Welcoming New Adult to the Book Genre World

Recently, a new genre emerged in the publishing world and has been gaining increasing popularity. “New Adult”— written for readers aged 18-30— initially branched off the ever-so-popular genre of YA, meant for readers 12-18. Market studies showed that many readers over the age of 18 were still reading YA. According to an article written by Brooke Mc for The Medium, “Over 50% of YA readers are over the age of 18.” So it’s safe to say that many readers out of the age bracket were heavily influencing the market. I admit I was one of them. My personal reasoning for “reading down” (reading a book that’s marketed for an age group younger than you) was that most books written for adults were books I wasn’t very interested in—dealing with topics such as divorce, marriage, and subjects that I, as a 20-something, had no interest in. I enjoy reading literary classics but one can’t read Anna Karenina all the time. Sometimes you just want a fun and entertaining book. YA is a goldmine for that. And while many of the characters in YA were officially aged as 16 or 17, I felt I had more connection to them than the 25 year olds in other adult genres.

Brooke Mc writes about why readers in their 20s read YA instead of other adult genres like crime or literary fiction. They write, “We’re expected to make the jump from reading books about people going through the same things we are to reading books about 40-something year-old men trying to solve a mystery. The books about college students in the general fiction section are few and far between, stories about LGBT+ people and minorities our age are even harder to find.” Recently, especially in the YA genre, publishers are attempting to print more diverse content by diverse authors, with books showcasing LGBT characters and characters of color. I have personally seen more diversity in the YA genre than other genres, which could be a reason why more readers flock to YA. Some good and popular examples are Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron and The Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley.

In 2014, the murmurings of a new niche for these readers erupted on the forums of PublishersWeekly. Editors and publicists considered adjusting the YA age range to include readers in their 20s. This would not be beneficial to readers since 12 year olds and 18 year olds simply have different reading and maturity levels. YA was to stay, but the creation of a new genre was decided upon. New Adult Fiction, or just New Adult, would incorporate things from YA like relatability and a high number of fantasy and science-fiction novels while also adjusting the content for readers with a higher maturity. Content like sexual scenes, violence, and profanity could now be written in a New Adult book.

New Adult didn’t hit it off in 2014 when it was lightly introduced in some publishing houses. In fact it was the opposite. Many people believed that New Adult would halt the advancement of readers to only read “childish” books with no literary merit. The pipeline thinking worked like this: readers would read “fun” books as children, but in their 20s they would start to read “real” books (AKA Anna Karenina.) These critics rejected New Adult and strongly believed in a cemented pipeline of reading.

Now in 2021, this genre is kicking off a new era of publishing. Many YA authors, seemingly growing with their audience, moved onto the New Adult genre, like popular YA author Sarah J. Maas. Goodreads has many list compilations of New Adult releases and upcoming projects. The market is there for New Adult books, and as a member of that market I can confirm. I am overjoyed that I don’t have to read about high school to find a novel that holds my interest, and I look forward to this genre becoming more diverse and inclusive as well, hoping it sets a tone for the rest of genres in the future.

-Isabella

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The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab has Become a New Adult Staple

While V.E. Schwab is hardly a new name in fantasy literature, her newest book The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue takes a different direction than her previous novels. Prior to Addie LaRue, released October 6, 2020, Schwab was best known for her new adult, young adult, and middle grade fantasy series like Shades of Magic, Monsters of Verity, and Everyday Angel. Since 2013, Schwab has published six different trilogy and duology series, but Addie LaRue is only her third standalone work. Not only was Addie LaRue a # 1 New York Times Bestseller, but it was also a #1 Library Reads Pick, a finalist for Book of the Month’s Book of the Year, and it received glowing recommendations from Oprah Magazine and NPR. 

The novel follows a woman named Adeline who makes a deal with a god of night in 1773, desperate to live freely rather than go through with her wedding. The god, Luc, gives her the freedom to live forever, but the catch is that no one she meets can remember her. She cannot write or speak her name, leaving her entirely unable to leave her own mark on the world. One day in a New York City bookshop, she finds someone who remembers her. Schwab writes about Addie’s life from 1773 to 2014 as she meets, loves, and is ultimately forgotten by all but one person, and how she manages to live an extraordinary life even without leaving anything behind. 

While most of Schwab’s other books are known for fast-paced and action-heavy storylines, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is more of a slow burn. There are multiple time jumps in the story as Addie recalls moments from her past when she first made the deal, her triumphs and defeats as she learns to live her new life, and her complicated love/hate relationship with Luc. These memories are sprinkled throughout her life in the present as her relationship with Henry, the bookstore employee who remembers her name, unfolds. While the fantasy elements of eternal life and making deals with gods liven the story, it is ultimately about Addie and Henry’s internal desires to find purpose, direction, and belonging. Schwab gives us a tear-jerking love story of two people who help the other find love and connection in their lonely and messy lives, and she manages to do this without being too cheesy about it. One simple but beautiful line about Addie and Henry’s relationship reads: “She never gave him the words, but he found them anyway.” 

During a time when travel, parties, and talking to strangers in bookstores were faraway dreams, getting to follow Addie as she travels across Europe, goes clubbing, and attends concerts and live theatre allows readers to reminisce about pre-pandemic life, as well as experience the world across four different centuries. It provides a little bit of hope too—as we watch Addie struggle through terrible years of poverty and war, she still finds small ways to cherish her life. One line in particular that stuck with me says:

There are nights when she cannot sleep, moments when she lies awake and dreams of dying. But then she wakes, and sees the pink and orange dawn against the clouds, or hears the lament of a lone fiddle, the music and the melody, and remembers that there is such beauty in the world. And she does not want to miss any of it—any of it.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a strong reminder that if we can make it through this wretched year, the light at the end of the tunnel will be more than worth it.

-Kathleen

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Call Her Dr. Jill Biden

“For American educators, this is a great day for you all,” Joe Biden said during his victory speech on November 7th. “You’re going to have one of your own in the White House.”

Dr. Jill Biden is thought to be the first second lady to hold a paying job while her husband served as Vice President. Now Dr. Biden makes history by being the first to hold a day job while serving as first lady. Dr. B, as her students call her, will continue teaching English and writing at Northern Virginia Community College.

“If we get to the White House, I’m going to continue to teach. It’s important, and I want people to value teachers and know their contributions and lift up their profession,” Dr. Biden said on CBS Sunday Morning.

Ohio University professor and expert on first ladies Katherine Jellison said, “It would be a real modernizing of the first ladyship … to have the president’s spouse live the kind of life that the majority of women live, which is working outside the home professionally.”

Having her own life and work outside of her husband’s shadow makes a marked difference in Dr. Biden’s well-being and holds firm to the stance that her career does not negatively impact her ability to be a great political collaborator. As she told People in 2009, “I knew if I let any time-lapse, I would be sucked into Joe’s life. I can have my own job, my own life, but also work on issues. I can have it all, really.”

Dr. Biden graduated from the University of Delaware in 1975. After her graduation, she began work as an English teacher in local public schools and at a psychiatric hospital for adolescents. Dr. Biden went on to earn one master degree in reading from West Chester University in 1981, then a second master’s in English from Villanova University in 1987. Dr. Biden taught English and worked as a reading specialist in Delaware public schools, and later taught English Composition at Delaware Technical and Community College, a position she held for 15 years. She officially became Dr. Biden in 2007, when she earned a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware.

During 2011, Dr. Biden and first lady Michelle Obama launched Joining Forces, a national campaign to assist military spouses and veterans returning from service find career opportunities. Dr. Biden also wrote a children’s book for military families inspired by Dr. Biden’s granddaughter Natalie’s experience with her father, Beau, serving in Iraq titled Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops.

Beau, who passed away from brain cancer in 2015, is also honored through Joe Biden and Dr. Biden’s continued involvement in cancer research and care initiatives. Even before Beau’s diagnosis, Dr. Biden founded the Biden Breast Health Initiative in Delaware in 1993 to educate young women on the importance of early breast cancer detection. The Biden Cancer Initiative will continue its work during Biden’s presidency.

As a member of the National Education Association, Dr. Biden will act as an advocate for teacher unions. Additionally, Dr. Biden plans to continue to push for two years of tuition-free community college, tackle unequal access to resources among students, address food insecurity issues, support military families, and stand with those fighting cancer in the coming years.

You can follow Dr. Jill Biden on Twitter and Instagram @DrBiden and read Dr. Biden’s recent blog posts here. You can also check out Dr. Biden’s memoir Where the Light Enters: Building a Family, Discovering Myself in hardcover and paperback.

-Cassidy

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Perspectives on Anti-Racist Booksale Surges During Summer 2020

OverDrive reports books written by Black authors increased 200% between March and September of 2020. Anti-racism titles increased 297% between May and June, following the murder of George Floyd. This spike in anti-racist titles selling occurred when foot traffic and sales were slim to none for many independent bookstores; the increased demand for books written by POC authors and anti-racism titles were much needed.

Black-owned bookstores and businesses also saw a positive spike in profitability and exposure during the summer. As Katherine Morgan reports, Semicolon, Loyalty Bookstores, Subtext Books, and Astoria Bookshop all saw a marked uptick in sales during this time of civil unrest. 

During the second half of 2020, there was also a surge of articles listing popular titles like this Business Insider listicle that shares 22 books centering on race and white privilege. Titles such as So You Want to Talk About Race, White Fragility, and How to Be an Antiracist are among the most common to appear in such articles, which contributed to the same anti-racism books being backordered.

Katherine Morgan notes a negative aspect of this surge in bookselling relating to disingenuous allyship: “Seeing photograph after photograph [on Instagram] made the whole situation feel… trendy.” Morgan continued, “Even though I’d like to believe that many of these people were acting with good intentions, my general sense was that most of these cases could be summed up as performative allyship.”

Danielle Mullen, owner of Semicolon, a Black-owned Chicago bookstore, shared via email with Morgan that white customers would “cry about the work they wanted to do on themselves but were completely uninterested in buying titles that were NOT trending.” Mullen also said, “I’d say that more than half of the purchases were completely performative, and we could feel the general disinterest.”

Mullen shared some customers frustrated about backorders went so far as to say, “This is exactly why I don’t support Black businesses,” or “I went out of my way to patronize your Black business and you can’t even get a simple thing right.”

A Subtext Books representative speculated many buyers saw purchasing trending titles as “chance to put their order confirmation on their Instagram story to show off to their friends.” Events Coordinator for Astoria Bookshop Christian Vega called it a case of, “look at this on my bookshelf, I’m a Good White™.”

Once the complex issue of racism was no longer trending, bookstores began to see stacks of books pile up. Hannah Oliver Depp, owner of Loyalty Bookstores said, “We have two full walls of orders not picked up between the two stores, and the vast majority are titles from this summer.”

Following the summer of 2020 came the presidential election. While over 50% of white women were estimated to have voted for Trump in 2016, we still wait to see how that percentage changes or stays the same. Unlike with placing book orders or showcasing popular covers on Instagram, ballots can’t be shared on social media with a trending hashtag attached. Voting is a private act, not a public performance.

When the dust settles, will there be a marked change in how self-professed allies voted?

You can read more of Katherine Morgan’s dynamic and thought-provoking article on bookselling to white “allies” here.

– Cassidy

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Revisiting Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights

Wakes of Joy: On Ross Gay's "The Book of Delights" | Porter House Review

All writers are given the same piece of advice to write each and every day; Ross Gay took on this challange and made it literal. 

And so The Book of Delights was born, Ross Gay’s collection of personal essays, a one-year project beginning and ending on Gay’s birthday. Each piece is framed around the blissful premise of capturing the little pleasures in everyday life. 

The topics of the delights range from the smallest joy, like a “Flower in the Curb,” where Gay recounts seeing, “some kind of gorgous flower, mostly a red I don’t think I actually have words for, a red I maybe only seen in this flower growing out of the crack between the curb and the asphalt…”  (Gay 9). 

In addition to the light moments, Gay reveals truths that ask his reader to think. A writer of color, Gay raises the issue of inequality throughout the text, like when he discusses his friend’s book : 

“…the fact that innocence is an impossible state for black people in America who are, by virtue of this country’s fundamental beliefs, always presumed guilty. It’s not hard to get this. Read Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow. Or Devah Pager’s work about hiring practices showing that black men without a record receive job callbacks at a rate lower than white men previously convicted of felonies… (Gay 25).”

This perspective that Gay shares invite his readers not only to be appreciative, but critical, of their surrounding world. More serious themes such as this are interwoven throughout the novel, balancing the existing uplifting moments. 

As a reader, this feels more authentic to read than a book solely about delights. It’s not realistic to have a positive outlook every day for an entire year. Gay’s balance of the ideas he wrestles with in daily life, along with the little joys he experiences make for a reliable narrator. 

The Book of Delights is a great read that asks its reader to reflect on life’s positive experiences, amid times of uncertainty and negativity. Its essay-like structure of one delight at a time makes it easy to breeze through, since it is connected by a premise more than a plot. It’s positive tone will put you in an uplifting mood and help you to notice the daily delights in life than go often overlooked. 

– Charleigh

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The Coronavirus Novel

World's Largest Mall, Now Abandoned, Might Become New Amazon Fulfillment  Center | HuffPost

The Simpsons “predicted” the 2016 election results and medium Laurie Garrett foresaw the 90’s AIDS epidemic. Whether this is truth or coincidence, Ling Ma’s telling of a devastating pandemic in her novel Severance is uncanny. 

Written in 2012, the apocalyptic-fiction novel has resurfaced since the pandemic began. Severance tells the story of a New York Bible publisher, Candace Chen, who wakes up and the world as she knows it has shut down. 

This turn of events happens after Shen Fever, an airborne fungal infection, emerges from a production facility in Shenzhen, China. No one knows how the infection reached the United States, but it is not long until it reaches the rest of the world. Citizens become “fevered,” experiencing cold and flu-like symptoms, tiredness, dizziness, vomiting, and ultimately a loss of consciousness. 

Reading Severance in the pandemic, with cases increasing yet again, is a surreal experience. There is desperate talk of a vaccine. Infection rates climb, as does the death toll. Everyone is fleeing New York. The United States implements a travel ban. Working in-person shifts to working from home. For jobs deemed “essential,” each employer is mandated to provide its workers with sanitation supplies. Ma even depicts mask wearing, such as the safety and discomforts a hot, N-95 mask can bring. In one exchange, a character nastily asks Candace “Where’s your mask?” when she forgets hers.

Even the naturalism seen in the pandemic appears in the novel. While we saw deer and wild boar freely roam cities, and South African lions napping in the street, Candace too experiences a similar return to nature. She finds and photographs a horse in Times Square running, “purposefully, cheerfully, unhurried, down Broadway.” It is as if a horse had perfect business being in midtown, making the sight all the more strange. 

The monotony of living through a shutdown also comes through in the novel, as characters pass the time trying on clothes and rearranging furniture. Most of the characters look to the media for guidance and answers, as The New York Times keeps a tally of those who become fevered. Candace starts a blog aimed to capture the post-apocalyptic feel of New York City — empty streets, still subway tunnels, and abandoned food carts are all shared online with her followers. 

After closing Severance, I wondered, how could someone capture this situation years before it happened? Was this coincidence no different than a TV sitcom, predicting a presidential candidate? Or is Ling Ma a prophet? 

I settled on an imaginative and thoughtful composer.

-Charleigh

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