Category Archives: Literature

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.


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Eye strain? Here Are Some Tips to Make Reading in The Digital World Easier

10 tips for computer eye strain relief

As the digital age continues to grow, chronic eye irritation grows along with it. I’ve had friends make optometrist appointments, thinking it’s time for glasses, only to learn blurred vision, eye strain, and pain can all come from too much staring at screens.  

Here are some tips to prevent eye strain. 

1.) Invest in blue light filtering glasses 

Blue light is a high-energy form of light that comes from computer screens. In fact, blue light is all around us (it even makes up sunlight). Though it is not detrimental to our health, the amount of time spent looking at sources of blue light can negatively impact our eyes. 

Blue light filter glasses are lenses designed to block this light. You can add them to a prescriptive lens, or if you don’t need a prescription, you can buy an inexpensive and stylish pair online, like these. 

2.) Change your phone and desktop settings to night mode 

Many digital devices offer a setting to reduce eye strain, reduce brightness and balance contrast for your eye health. This setting is usually referred to as “night mode,” and can be enabled by accessing your device settings. 

Some devices, such as the Apple iPhone, let you customize this setting according to what time of day it is. If you know you’re working on your desktop from 9-5, you can automatically set nightmode as the default during this time. 

3.) Take breaks (if you can) 

If you can space out the amount of time you need to look at a computer screen, your eyes will be able to recover from the strain in less time. This may be difficult to do with a work-from-home schedule, but these breaks do not need to be lengthy. 

A great guideline to remember this is the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look at something that’s 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds. Sometimes a short break is all your eyes need to adjust. 

4.) Adjust the lighting in the room you work in

We have addressed the importance of your screen’s brightness, but what about the brightness of your workspace? 

Ensuring there is enough light in the room allows for contrast between your computer screen and your background field of vision. Sunlight and overhead light is best, while having light behind you and directly in your field of vision tends to increase eye strain. 

5.) Try audiobooks and read from paper texts 

Audiobooks are a great way to keep up with reading when your eyes don’t feel up to the task. In fact, while physical branches remain closed, many online library databases are offering free audiobook access. 

Whenever you are able, opt to read paper copies of novels, and get your news from the paper instead of the news app. The more ways you can find to reduce your screen time, the more your eyes will thank you. 


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Meat Symbolism in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

That red juice oozing out of your steak isn't blood

If you’re looking for a terrific and horrific read this Halloween season, look no further than Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. (Please Note: The Vegetarian is a psychological horror/thriller novel and may not be suited for all readers. The book depicts violence/sexual violence, mental illness, and abuse, so please be advised before reading). 

The Vegetarian is written in three parts with three narrators. Part one follows protagonist Yeong-he and is narrated by her husband, Mr. Cheong. As a psychological thriller, this novel focuses on the psychological trauma Yeong-he experiences, and the mental anguish of those around her.

Mr. Cheong isn’t the best husband: he opens the novel by saying his wife is average. His narrative tone is that of a superior partner in a relationship, and the way in which he speaks to his wife indicates mistreatment. 

We learn Yeong-he is undergoing a significant change. After waking up from a nightmare, she vows to never eat meat again. Meanwhile, Yeong-he’s personality is becoming muted. She turns socially withdrawn and quiet, as if she is experiencing depressive symptoms. 

Yeong-he’s repulsion toward meat could speak to a greater symbolic meaning: the repulsion toward her own husband. Psychoanalytic theorist and philosopher Julia Kristeva writes about this very topic of abjection, or the feeling of horror that causes the subconscious and unconscious mind to confuse the self with the other. Regarding food as an example, Kristeva writes: 

“‘I’ want none of that element, sign of their desire; ‘I’ do not want to listen, ‘I’ do not assimilate it, ‘I’ expel it. But since the food is not an ‘other’ for ‘me,’ who am only in their desire, I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which ‘I’ claim to establish myself.” 

When considering the text from a feminist lens, the symbolic implications of meat are hard to ignore.  From a physical standpoint, meat is flesh and body, and often contains blood. It’s a common trope in art for meat to represent masculinity.

Yeong-he’s disgust towards meat could be because she unconsciously likened it to something primal. Meat could be the threat she is misinterpreting to harm her own reality. Not eating meat goes against her husband’s wishes, and is an exercise in control. 

This reading would suggest Mr. Cheong and masculinity itself is Yeong-he’s real problem, not her unwillingness to eat meat. Ironically, Mr. Cheong becomes more domineering to try to combat this eating issue, and Yeong-he’s mental state only worsens. 

If you’re curious like to learn what happens to Yeong-he and want to curl up with a page-turning thriller,  I recommend The Vegetarian.


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“A Hard Road:” Charles Coe Considers Voter Attitudes

Charles Coe, a member of CambridgeEditors’ Editorial Team, is also a poet and prose writer. His latest essay, “A Hard Road” published in Plume, recounts his thoughts while traveling through Western New York as a poet-in-residence at the Chautauqua Institute. Getting “a lay of the land,” Charles opts to have his driver take the scenic route to Chautauqua, where manufacturing jobs have dwindled and the abundant Concord grapes have little demand. Coe notes this landscape is “a common one in the rust belt and farm country.” 

Commenting on “A Hard Road,” Coe states his essay “reflects on how a common attitude shared by people who support the current administration is suspicion of and antipathy toward art and artists.”

This common attitude is established in the collapsing barns and beat-up homes he sees along the drive, and Coe notes the Trump 2016 signs at seemingly every home and turn. The duality of poverty and political agendas, aligning with the side of wealth baffles Coe. He likens his own understanding of the signs to the following Lindon B Johnson quote: 

“I’ll tell you what’s at the bottom of it,” he said. “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

He goes on to list the political beliefs and agendas of the Trump voter: a disbelief in climate change, Covid-19, and the desire to fund football teams over libraries. In “The Hard Road,” Coe considers the driving principles behind The Trump Voter without high-income. He also takes into consideration Trump’s view on the arts, leaving readers with the question of whether Trump even reads poetry. 

Coe teaches English at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island and is a poetry and nonfiction professor for their low-residency MFA program. You can read more of his work in his  2019 book, Memento Mori, a poetry collection capturing mortality, change, and loss. 

– Charleigh

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Navigating the Hero’s Journey

A person leaves their everyday life behind, meets new friends, embarks on an adventure filled with trials and challenges, overcomes opposition, and changes their life and surroundings.

Did I describe Star Wars: A New Hope, John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, or Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”?

It’s a trick question. I described the basic plot structure of not just all three works, but also the key plot structure outlined in Joseph Cambell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, originally published in 1949. In his monumental — and monomythic — work, Campbell coins the phrase “the hero’s journey” to describe a universal pattern found in stories throughout the world’s cultures.

The hero’s journey is a familiar map for readers, film fanatics, and storytellers of all formats. This archetype consists of 3 stages, where the hero:

1. Leaves their ordinary life behind (The Departure)

2. Encounters various obstacles to reach their final goal (The Initiation)

3. Returns home and shares their victory or treasure (The Return)

The 3 stages comprise individual steps. Although not every story involves each, the steps themselves are iconic enough to be recognized when pointed out.

Campbell’s writings directly influenced George Lucas’s creation of the Star Wars franchise, which in turn contributed to Campbell’s description of the hero’s journey becoming almost a prescription for movies, TV shows, and books in the 21st century.

Whether the story is on the big screen, streaming services, or your bookshelf, the hero’s journey is almost certain to make an appearance.

But what can the reader take away from the hero’s journey? Are we to assume stories that don’t perfectly follow Campbell’s descriptive structure should always be received like the last season of Game of Thrones? Should editors and publishers turn down any book that doesn’t involve the protagonist literally or metaphorically slaying a dragon and restoring peace to the kingdom?

Simply put, the hero’s journey is one of many ways to understand a story’s plot. It’s also worth remembering the tried-and-true saying: rules were made to be broken.

Intentionally subverting the hero’s journey can create an unexpected and entertaining adventure. Being familiar with Campbell’s described 3 stages and steps means the reader can more intentionally follow and appreciate the story’s plot, whether it breaks with or adheres to the hero’s journey.

For example:

Campbell believed all stories echo each other. But key differences, subtle nuances, and surprise twists are what makes each story unique.

Understanding the hero’s journey can unlock another level of enjoyment for readers and audience members. And although the hero’s journey is a popular trail to follow, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to plots. No storyteller should be afraid of breaking the pattern.

Explore the hero’s journey and Campbell’s landmark work here.


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3 Tips to Get Back into the Habit of Reading

If I had a nickel for every time someone told me reading is one of their favorite hobbies, only for that person to admit they haven’t cracked open a book for months, I would have enough change to buy another novel that would sit unread on my shelf for months.

During times of media overload, where burning out from staring at screens are far from rare occurrences, a book can be a welcome break. But this points to a clear question: How do we rediscover the habit of reading?

In The Power of Habit, award-winning business reporter Charles Duhigg breaks down why good and bad habits have a tendency to linger. The habit loop, as Duhigg describes it, consists of 3 main steps. The first step of the habit loop involves encountering a trigger to cue an action. This leads into the second step, which is performing the specified action. Performing this action merits the reward, the last step in the habit loop.

Here’s an example of a habit loop:

  1. Cue: a Twitter notification pops up on your screen
  2. Action: You open Twitter and see who liked your Tweet
  3. Reward: A jolt of dopamine and sense of accomplishment encourages repetition

You can read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit here.

Here are 3 tips to use the habit loop to confidently call yourself a bookworm:

  1. Set an alarm to signal it’s prime reading time

Contrary to popular belief, technology doesn’t have to be the enemy of reading. Setting a repeating alarm on your phone or other device is a simple, effective way to hold yourself accountable and stay dedicated to reading. The more you sit down to read after the alarm sounds, the stronger the cue becomes.

  1. Reward yourself when you reach a reading goal

If reading feels more like work instead of a reward in itself, then take a page out of my book and have a treat after hitting a milestone. When you finish a chapter, turn to a specific page, or read for a certain stretch of time, try enjoying a favorite snack, pouring a cup of tea, and getting cozy for the next reading stint. Remember, books pair well with self-care.

  1. Set a reading schedule

Just like its name implies, the habit loop repeats itself. To avoid losing steam and actually finish that book you’ve been meaning to dig into, set aside chunks of time throughout the week. Even the busiest readers can squeeze in 20-30 minutes of reading before starting the workday or turning in for the night. Making reading a consistent part of your routine is a sure-fire way to build a reading habit that sticks.


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Rachel Carson’s “Spring Without Voices” and the Rise of Environmental Literature

Throughout quarantine, many have turned to nature for a place of comfort and solace. We go to parks for socially distanced picnics, run on wood-chipped trails, and fill our bedrooms with pothos and ferns. When the pandemic is over and we are able to return to a semblance of normal, it is important to remember that nature was always there for us; it is finally time for us to be there for her. 

Environmental literature has been warning us about our decaying world for decades, and it is time to listen. Rachel Carson’s environmental science book Silent Spring was among the first and most important of its kind; Carson laments over the United States’s use of synthetic pesticides and how they have resulted in severe damage to our environment. From DDT to Parathion, Carson explains how insecticides have poisoned every aspect of nature, starting with spraying it onto our crops to killing millions of non-target organisms such as birds and fish. Describing how these insecticides wiped out multiple animal populations, Carson wrote, “It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh” (2). 

Carson’s words are particularly relevant to our current climate; in the same way that spring was marked by the sounds of birds, summer was once defined by warm, late nights, beach gatherings, and barbecues. As we watch our first pandemic summer come to an end, we must think about how we have relied on nature and what we can do to prevent further destruction. 

We must not only carry on Rachel Carson’s legacy but be wary of the fact that her book still rings true sixty years later. Authors like Rebecca Solnit instill hope in those that are disillusioned by peoples’ lack of care for our environment. In “Letter to a Young Climate Activist on the First Day of the New Decade,” Solnit explains how we need to rise out of our state of disillusionment in order to make change. This begins by understanding the beauty and worthiness of nature. 

So, the next time you go to your local park or stare at the birds outside your window, remember, as Rebecca Solnit says, “We owe it to the whales, to every songbird in every tree, to frogs and trout and fireflies.”

Kelsey Allen

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Celebrating Toni Morrison On the Anniversary of Her Death (And Every Day)

August 5, 2020 was the one year anniversary of iconic novelist and essayist Toni Morrison’s death. For many people, Toni Morrison was their first introduction into Black literature; in fact, many parents have challenged her infamous novel Beloved, deeming it violent and sexually explicit. Despite attempts to ban her work, Toni Morrison’s writing and legacy lives on. 

The New York Times described Morrison as the “towering novelist of the Black experience,” The first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, Toni Morrison wrote novels, essays, and short stories that are essential to our understanding of American Literature. She accurately portrayed the Black experience while highlighting her writing with a dream-like essence; this can be seen in Beloved, with her portrayal of the trauma and haunting legacy slavery has left on the novel’s main character, Sethe. She describes this trauma through a word she coined herself: rememory. Morrison writes: “Some things you forget. Other things you never do…Places, places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone, but the place–the picture of it–stays, and not just in my rememory, but out there, in the world.”

Toni Morrison spent her lifetime educating the people around her, from teaching at Princeton University for seventeen years to releasing novels, short fiction, and children’s books up until her death. Some of these works include Home, God Help the Child, “Sweetness,” and Please, Louise. Young writers such as Britt Bennett and Colson Whitehead consider Morrison to be a strong influence on their best-selling and Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. Despite her tragic death, Morrison continues to have an impact on American literature, and she will continue to do so until the end of time. 

Kelsey Allen

Photo courtesy of The New Yorker

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The Relatability of Otessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation During Quarantine

Some people have decided to spend their quarantine productively: baking bread, learning to play a new instrument, or even adopting a new pet. Others, however, are both begrudgingly and enthusiastically embracing the beauty of laziness. Though it is easy to feel guilty for enjoying this newfound lethargy; Otessa Moshfegh’s novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, makes us feel a little less alone. 

Moshfegh’s novel opens with a young and beautiful woman living in New York City. She lives in a luxurious apartment and has a seemingly endless amount of money due to the passing of her parents. Despite her idyllic life, the narrator, who remains unnamed, is deeply depressed. She decides to sleep for an entire year, describing it as a kind of “reset.” She takes sleeping medications constantly and only leaves her apartment to get food or visit her psychiatrist. Confined to her apartment, she often narrates things that have no choice but to resonate with people’s current feelings during quarantine. The narrator writes, “I felt nothing. I could think of feelings, emotions, but I couldn’t bring them up in me. I couldn’t even locate where my emotions came from. My brain? It made no sense”(137) as she falls asleep to Whoopi Goldberg films. 

Like the narrator, many of us are looking for a reset on life. Though it seems impossible, the narrator ends up getting her fresh start. After a year of rest and relaxation (interspersed with moments of stress), the narrator steps outside and enjoys her surroundings. After finally being able to be free from the confines of her apartment, she writes, “there was majesty and grace in the pace of the swaying branches of the willows. There was kindness. Pain is not the only touchstone for growth, I said to myself”(288). 

You can purchase Otessa Moshfegh’s novel here

Kelsey Allen

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