Category Archives: Books

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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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.

-Charleigh 

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Reading Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments in Late 2020

Like many others in my age demographic, I was first introduced to Margaret Atwood through the television series adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. After watching a thrilling season finale during 2018, I went to a local bookstore and bought the book for myself.

I was in Oxford at the time, so I paid for my copy in pounds instead of dollars. Either my accent, my pace counting coins, or a combination of the two made me instantly recognizable as American. In Atwood’s signature work, the United States is no more.

The storekeeper who handed back my change told me, “I used to think highly of your country. Now I pray for it.”

The Handmaid’s Tale paints a grim picture of a worst-case scenario, but the patriarchal society in the book did not emerge fully-formed or without warning. Gilead was built one brick at a time, just like any other country. Atwood’s work encourages readers to avoid making a critical misconception: “Something that bad could never happen here.”

Atwood only included events and crimes against humanity in her imagined dystopia that have occurred in our reality. Although The Testaments came out in 2019, Atwood’s sequel is eerily similar to the state of the U.S. in late 2020.

Separation of church and state is threatened, far-right groups are emboldened, and democracy itself is endangered. Comparisons are made even more unsettling by newly sworn-in Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett having ties to People of Praise, where she served as a “handmaid.” In 1986, Atwood stated she pulled inspiration from a “Catholic charismatic spinoff sect,” that labeled women “handmaids.” Although Atwood has yet to confirm or deny People of Praise influencing Gilead’s radicalized society, the connection still — and should — raise concern.

The Testaments speak to the slow and steady process of becoming morally compromised. The sequel begins 16 years after The Handmaid’s Tale concludes and is told by three narrators, one being the notorious Aunt Lydia. Lydia describes the order of Aunts, where women vie for power through oppressing other women and continually choosing the lesser evil. Aunt Lydia is a compelling force in the sequel, just as complex as she is detestable.

But there are two other narrators in The Testaments: Agnes and Daisy, two young, brave women. Atwood’s later witnesses are constrained by circumstances and aren’t unstoppable heroines. Their goal is more small-scale than leading a revolution, as is the objective of protagonists in other dystopian books. Simply put, Agnes and Daisy want to survive.

The Handmaid’s Tale came out in 1985, and its sequel shows small marks of its creation during the 21st century. News is referred to as “fake,” and insults like “slut” make their appearance known. Such subtle nuances embedded in Atwood’s work remind the reader that although Gilead is fictional, the comparisons between the country and the United States ring as startlingly familiar.

The Testaments does not place the reader in a comfortable position. Instead, the book challenges its audience. Aunt Lydia says, “How can I have behaved so badly, so cruelly, so stupidly? you will ask. You yourself would never have done such things! But you yourself never have had to.”

In this sequel, Atwood takes back the world she created and demands introspection and critical thinking, whereas the television show risks leaning into entertainment value and escapism.

Atwood’s The Testaments calls readers to bear witness to events, to speak out against oppressors, and not take anything at face value. The timing of such a work being readily available in paperback form could not have been better.

Read Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments here.
-Cassidy 

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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.

-Cassidy

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Going Back in Time with Midnight Sun

The first time I heard of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer was when I was a teen and life’s biggest issues were completing my homework and playing with friends. Twilight soon became an integral part of my life along with Harry Potter, and I still prefer the latter. However, I was drawn to the absurd yet compelling love story between Edward and Bella, for it gave me a sense of what romance was supposed to look like; something that was still relatively unexplored in Harry Potter, as it was never the central theme in the adventure and prophecy-centric series.

Now, nearly a decade later, Midnight Sun, finally hit our shelves. A retelling of Twilight from the perspective of Edward Cullen, the book was slated to be released in 2009 but was shelved when the first twelve chapters were leaked, and Meyer put it on indefinite hold until it was finished and ready for the world.

Amazon.com: Midnight Sun (9780316707046): Meyer, Stephenie: Books

Reading Midnight Sun was a nostalgic experience as I was transported back to when I had first begun reading Twilight. However, 23-year-old me was left relatively unimpressed by the novel —nearly twice the size of the original — for my idea of romance has evolved in the last few years. What once appealed to me as a young child now emerged as problematic and unhealthy. 

Moreover, the plot does not offer anything new to the storyline or Edward’s motives. The additional dialogue and scenes only serve to feed Edward’s obsession with Bella which also is less compelling than in the predecessor. 

That’s not to say that Meyer has not attempted to address some of Edward’s questionable behavior, which had become a controversial topic over the years. In one such attempt regarding Edward watching Bella sleep at night, she writes, “I was repulsed by myself as I watched her toss again. How was I any better than any sick peeping tom? I wasn’t any better. I was much, much worse.” Although a good effort on Meyer’s part, it still doesn’t detract from the fact that stalking should not be romanticized. 

In my opinion, the only fascinating and redeeming feature of this novel is that there are more interactions with the other vampire characters who are immensely multifaceted in their own right, especially Rosalie. Even though we got a peek into Rosalie’s life in the third book Eclipse, her exchanges with Edward in Midnight Sun give a better insight into the flawed complexity and guilt of her character, adding a new layer of her jealousy toward Bella who has everything she wants but cannot have. One can’t help but root for Rosalie in this situation (something I never imagined I would do)! 

In summation, Midnight Sun is a read meant for the die-hard fans who will surely enjoy seeing their favorite characters back in action. For me, it was a journey through time and how I have changed as a person and as a reader. 

Amala Reddie

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Feasting on Red, White and Royal Blue

In 2019, Casey McQuiston’s Red, White and Royal Blue took the world by storm. The novel, which received praise and accolades across the globe, not only provided a perfect breezy rom-com by subverting tropes but also gave readers an endearing LGBTQ couple and highlighted several sociopolitical issues. 

The plot revolves around Alexander, son of the President of the United States, and Henry, the Prince of Wales,  who start off as nemeses and end up having to fake a friendship after a scandal at a Royal Wedding. The quintessential twist arrives when both start to fall for each other. Appearing at first as a run-of-the-mill romance, the story unfolds to be so much more. 

9781250316776_p0_v6_s1200x630Set in 2016, in an alternate reality where Ellen Claremont from Texas becomes the first female President of the United States, the story presents a “what could have been” setting that stands in stark contrast to the existing political climate. Through the pairing of the son of the “most powerful person in the world” with the son of the “most powerful Royal in the world”, McQuiston aptly delineates the power struggle and expectations from the two institutions (the White House and the Royal Establishment), the rigmarole of the press, and societal pressure that transcends all territorial boundaries. 

Even the romance doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of conforming to society standards and coming out on your own terms. This conflict is beautifully underlined in the email and text messages exchanged between Alex and Henry. In one such email, Alex remarks to Henry, “thinking about history makes me wonder how I’ll fit into it one day, I guess. And you too. I kinda wish people still wrote like that. History, huh? Bet we could make some.” On the forefront, these emails have a humorous banter-like tone, but as the story progresses, they unearth the heartache and the emotional intensity of their feelings. 

While there are a few unrealistic elements, the earnest and poignant writing prevents it from becoming a saccharine read. And given the current climate, this book feels like a breath of fresh air and reminds us that love is indeed love. 

 

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Seeking Comfort in Sally Rooney’s Normal People

A common theme of quarantine is loneliness, whether it be physical or mental. We are living in an unprecedented time in which many of us are experiencing variations of the same feeling. Waking up to the same environment every day is deeply disheartening and has left a lot of us feeling unmotivated and uninspired. It is difficult feeling fulfilled when there is nowhere to go. Many people are relying on art to transport them or make them feel a semblance of community. 

An author that embodies this sense of loneliness while still managing to create a world so different from the one people are currently facing is Sally Rooney. The television adaptation of her most recent novel, Normal People, was released at the end of April. As the Hulu show gains more and more popularity, the novel does as well. Despite bookstores closing due to COVID-19, Nielsen BookScan reported the love story as the current highest selling novel. It remained on The New York Times Best Sellers list for eight weeks. 

imagesNormal People is a story that contains the best of both worlds; Sally Rooney takes the reader through multiple European countries, assigning each place with different tones. The story opens with the two main characters, Marianne and Connell, stuck in the bleakness of Sligo, only to transition to the energetic and youthful nature of Trinity College in Dublin. Rooney takes the reader to Marianne’s villa in Italy, eating strawberries in her backyard, to her snowy semester abroad in Sweden. Despite Rooney’s ability to transport the reader to multiple countries in the comfort of their own home, she layers the novel with a theme of loneliness, something that indeed resonates with those in quarantine. As Rooney states in her novel, “Life is the thing you bring with you inside your own head”(208). 

Normal People by Sally Rooney is where adventure and culture intersect with the feeling of mental and physical isolation. The exploration of utter loneliness combined with the desolate portrait of Sligo will touch readers—especially in the current climate—in a way they never have before. 

 

Kelsey Allen

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Marie Kondo in the Time of COVID-19

Over the last few years, mindfulness literature has been a growing subsection of the self-help nonfiction genre. What began as a response to a growing anxiety within America has suddenly come to a head with Covid-19, a crisis just as mental as it is economic. 

Amidst this with fortuitously good timing, Marie Kondo, known for her previous New York Times Best-Selling work, the life-changing magic of tidying up, has released a new book titled, Joy at Work, co-written with Scott Sonenshein. Kondo is a Japanese writer focused on the mindfulness and philosophical elements of decluttering one’s home life. Her books, fittingly published in stark white binding with red cover lettering, are beautiful hard-cover volumes that give practical and simple advice to working on the core of one’s home life. At the center of this approach is the idea to sort through items by category based on if they “spark joy” in your life. Her sophomore book is titled Spark Joy, and functions as an illustrated companion work to her first book. Her stance on reducing one’s possessions is refreshing in a time when we are physically unable to go out and spend money.

Kondo’s newest work is particularly applicable now that many Americans are working from home. The bedroom writing desk has been suddenly thrust into the position of full-time workstation. The home is neither physically nor emotionally designed to function as a universal space for all aspects of our lives. We can see this effect in the collective longing for external  work and social spaces. 

Joy at Work takes the same approach of mindfulness and decluttering that was so critical to finding joy and peace within a home, and applies it to the office for the purpose of maintaining focus and productivity, a task made all the more difficult by the tumultuousness of the present. Mindfulness works like Kondo’s are critical to maintaining a sense of momentum and poise in a time of crisis.

Kondo has unintentionally cued into a Covid-19 zeitgeist of craving in the American public. Much like how Nintendo soothed the youth of America’s need for control and plasticity with their recent Animal Crossing release, Kondo has done the same for the sudden shift in the American work life. If there was ever a time for self-help books to bring about overwhelming positive change in the face of adversity, it is now.

 

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Renewed Relevance for the Forgotten War Memoir Written By the Father of NYC Ballet

In 1946, Lincoln Kirstein co-founded the New York City Ballet. However, lesser known then his contributions to the performing arts is his poetic memoir published in 1964 about serving in the US Army during the Second World War. Rhymes of a PFC is a tragically long-out-of-print collection of prose dealing with the stresses of combat, sexuality in the army, and existentialism under the constant threat of death. Now that we are the homefront of a biological struggle happening worldwide, Kirstein’s poems gain renewed relevance for their power and solidarity.

The book is split into sections reflecting the different theaters of war. Each section pays tribute to quiet moments so often left out of newsreels and documentaries. Instead of bullets and shrapnel, Kirstein chronicles the emotional struggles going on behind closed doors–battles not just with the enemy, but between allies and individuals. The complex and surprising nature of these issues can be seen in Kirstein’s reflection of the dynamic between American and British soldiers in regard to married women, which leaves the reader as burned-out as the cuckolded British Tommy. “Bert grasps the situation–/ After five long years,/ Young Bertie in a Yankee’s arms–/ And bursts into tears.// Bert will not try to kill him/ As the corporal thinks he might:/ He’s had his fill of fighting;/ He wants no fight” (50-51).

However, not all of the poems display animosity. There are several that reflect on the collective misery and desire for comfort among soldiers. Many of these sections have homosexual undertones that add a unique character to Kirstein’s poetic voice. In the poem, “Junior,” Kirstein chronicles the quiet tension of a transatlantic crossing. “Then Junior, through our nightmare, came stalking quick but dead;/ As I absorbed his fright from him, the mist on his shaved head/ Stood out like sweat. His two wild paws in helpless animal fright/ Trapped me in the clamp of love to nurse him through this night.// He was in peril. So was I. Be with us to the end/ Where every selfish soldier is rationed half a friend” (61).

Kristein writes wonderfully clever prose that outlines the entire conflict in Europe. The dreamlike quality of episodic poetic rhyme contrasts with visions of Atlantic Convoys, Uboats, and occupied Europe in the darkest days of the conflict. Now, in the biological world war against Covid-19, each of us is a soldier cooped up in a perpetual battle against infection. I’m sure many Americans are feeling the emotional strain of this war, and the economic strain of a wartime economy. In this regard, Kirstein’s recollection of quiet warfare is particularly enchanting and relevant.

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https://www.amazon.com/Rhymes-More-PFC-Lincoln-Kirstein/dp/B000I8UDGU

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