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Currently reading: Corazón by Yesika Salgado

Review: The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser

The book in two sentences: Devoney Looser explores Jane Austen’s long and lasting legacy as one of the most brilliant novelists to ever exist. In this book, we see Austen illustrated, dramatized, politicized, and schooled in ways that give voice to Austen’s lesser-known authorities.

Rating:  Travel companion

Long story long: I made it through a whopping four pages of Pride and Prejudice the first time I picked it up. I was in sixth grade and figured it was about time I started reading “the Classics” (whatever that meant). I wouldn’t end up finishing the book until two or three years later.

Since then, Pride and Prejudice has become my favorite novel. I have read it nearly 20 times, listened to the audiobook version almost twice as much, collected fan-fiction and spin-off books, and been to a number of stage adaptations.

There are many reasons I love Pride and Prejudice—Austen’s biting social commentary on class, marriage, and wealth, to say the least—but the most meaningful to me is that it has helped me track my growth as a reader, and as a person, over the past 18 years. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I’ve either learned something new about myself, or something new about the book and the author; it never ceases to surprise me!

Devoney Looser’s novel The Making of Jane Austen is a wonderful continuation of this tradition. Her book explores the legacy of Austen in four parts through lesser-known historical figures. In the first part, she wonders how “illustrations seen by Austen’s first generation of readers shaped then-developing understandings of the author and her fiction” (15). A number of artistic choices made in the 19th century carry weight even today, and have influenced early stage and screen adaptations of Austen’s novels.

Continue reading “Review: The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser”

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Review: Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

The book in two sentences: This collection of short stories centers around the lives of Haitian women, across space and time, in a dialogue about identity, autonomy, suffering, and strength. It is a thematically “heavy” conversation, and gives the reader an opportunity to sit in their discomfort.

Rating: ✈  Travel companion

Long story short (no spoilers): What I enjoy most about short story collections is trying to figure out how each story connects to the others. Sometimes these connections are obvious, and other times they are more obscure.

At its core, Krik? Krak! is about the lives and deaths of Haitian women, their communities, whether real or imagined, and their relationship with violence. There are times when characters from one store appear, however briefly, in another, or when a character in one story alludes to a character in a another story. There are also a number of crosscutting themes throughout the book—self-preservation, how identity is strongly tethered to a place, the power in ancestral lineage—that surface frequently.

One theme that stood out to me was the rendering of time. It is difficult to know when exactly Danticat’s stories take place and over what period of time (e.g., days? weeks? months?). This gives a sense that these stories (and subsequently the violence, pain, suffering, and hope) are both eternal and fleeting. I haven’t quite decided what that means yet, but perhaps in my next reading of Krik? Krak! I can tackle that question.

Have you read this book or another by Danticat? What did you think? Comment below!

Review: Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros

The book in two sentences: In Woman Hollering Creek, Sandra Cisneros weaves 22 tales of passion, pain, and longing that describe life along the U.S.-Mexico border. They take place in different times and follow different people on different paths, but all are centered around the identities and experiences of Chican@ and indigenous womxn.

Rating: 🌴 Island collection

Long story short (spoilers): What I enjoyed most about this collection was the writing. Cisneros’ prose is lyrical and enchanting. She often lapses into these long, run-on sentences, where one word just flows into the next, and like a wave they slowly draw you in before crashing into you.

Continue reading “Review: Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros”

Currently reading: Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros

Review: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Brief synopsis (Goodreads): Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

Rating: ✈ Travel companion

Long story short: I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would. The concept is something right up my alley, both interesting and enthralling, and featuring strong characters, but the pacing is too slow and the story doesn’t really go anywhere. There are some great action and suspense sequences throughout the book, places where I could feel my heart pounding and goosebumps forming, but the ending left me feeling adrift.

Annihilation is the first in the Southern Reach trilogy, but I’m not motivate to read the next two books. I watched the movie and have mixed feelings about it, too. Have you read or seen Annihilation? What did you think? Does the rest of the trilogy flesh out the story some more? Is it worth reading?

Review: Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Brief synopsis (back cover): When prototype models for a dream-invading device go missing at the Institute for Psychiatric Research, employees soon learn that someone is using these new machines to drive them all insane. Brilliant psychotherapist Atsuko Chiba—whose alter ego is a dream detective named Paprika—realizes she is in danger. She must venture into the dream world in order to fight her mysterious opponents. Soon nightmares begin to leak into daily life and the borderline between dream and reality grows unclear. The future of the waking world is at stake.

Rating: ✈ Travel companion

Long story short: Science fiction and mystery are two of my favorite genres, and I really enjoyed the way they intersect in this book. Other things this book does well:

  • It is convincing. The new technology that allows people to enter each other’s dreams is legitimized in the book in the form of buy-in from the scientific community. Even without their endorsement, the concept is weird and “out there” enough to be believable. Also, considering the book was first published in 1993, it has aged well.
  • The plot moves along. Though a little slow at first, it picks up about a quarter of the way in and is a thrilling ride till the end.
  • It offers some social commentary. While it focuses on the challenges of scientific research, asking questions like Who is research for? and Can you have research for research’s sake?, it also explores the way in which we treat mental illness and therapy.

Some minor critiques:

  • There is some sexual exploitation and violence. However, it is not necessarily gratuitous; that is, it speaks to characters’ mindsets and serves as an explanation for their motivations.
  • There are a lot of characters. Not quite Game of Thrones style, but at times still distracting.

My next step is to watch the anime movie based on this book that came out in 2006. Have you read the book or watched the movie? What did you think?

Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Brief synopsis (Goodreads): From a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Delving into his own personal story and drawing on a wide array of sociological studies, Vance takes us deep into working class life in the Appalachian region. This demographic of our country has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, and Vance provides a searching and clear-eyed attempt to understand when and how “hillbillies” lost faith in any hope of upward mobility, and in opportunities to come.

At times funny, disturbing, and deeply moving, this is a family history that is also a troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large portion of this country.

Rating✈  Travel companion

Long story short: My expectations for this book were largely shaped by reviews that heralded J.D. Vance’s work as an explanation for the way the 2016 elections turned out. That is not the case. While Hillbilly Elegy is an interesting look at Vance’s childhood, it’s also a book written in a vacuum that can’t be applied to any community outside of Vance’s working-class Appalachia.

Perhaps the most telling critique of Hillbilly Elegy is the fact that Vance wants us to look at how class and the family environment affect the poor without filtering our views through a “racial prism” (8). This is problematic because it’s an incomplete story. Yes, their struggles are valid, but it’s also important to acknowledge that their race didn’t add an additional barrier to them being successful.

The fact that Vance chooses to ignore racial tensions is especially ironic considering that he spends about a quarter of the book talking about how hillbillies were immigrants in their own rights. For example, when his grandparents moved from rural Kentucky to the moderately populated community of Middletown, Ohio, they had a difficult time adapting, and were often called out for behaving differently than Middletown “natives”. The reason they moved in the first place? To give their children a better life. Cue major eye-rolls. That’s basically what immigrant parents want for their children: to give them the opportunity to be more successful than they were. The fact that many current residents of Appalachia seem to have forgotten this history (along with the fact that their distant relatives literally came from a different continent) is not only extremely hypocritical, but a form of immense privilege.

When attempting to justify why working-class Appalachia largely didn’t relate to Obama in 2008 Vance says, “Obama overcame adversity in his own right—adversity familiar to many of us—but that was long before any of us knew him” (191).

First of all, while there may have been some overlap between Obama’s and your community’s adversity, because of his race Obama had to overcome a lot more. Even after taking office claims that he was Muslim or a Jihadi terrorist persisted. No White president has ever been accused of being a terrorist, even though most attacks in the U.S. are carried out by White, Christian males.

Second, of course he faced adversity before you knew him. Being in a position to run for President implies that you’ve overcome certain obstacles to be there in the first place! And why does somebody have to currently be going through a hard time for you to empathize? Aren’t you asking the reader to understand what motivates you now because of all that you’ve been through? Can you not extend that same courtesy to somebody else?

But it gets better: in the same breath, Vance asks for our sympathy: “I am a tall, white, straight male. I have never felt out of place in my entire life. But I did at Yale” (201). I don’t say this lightly: I literally can’t even.

I’m going to end my review there in case my brain implodes. If you’ve read Hillbilly Elegy I would love to hear your thoughts. I have more things to say, but need some time to unpack it all.

A travel journal is a book, right?

This summer I’ll be traveling to Southeast Asia for a few weeks as a final huzzah! before starting my graduate studies in the fall. After making extensive lists about places to go, things to see, people to meet, and food to eat, I settled on Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, with a few days in Japan on the way over.

excited awesome screaming happy dance jonah hill

excited gif new life

If you’re susceptible to the wanderlust bug you will understand how difficult it was to cross places off my list. But I want to do justice to these remarkable countries and with only about a month to spare I rather not rush things (I know, I know…three countries in a month is still rushing things). If you have any recommendations or advice or suggestions, I would absolutely love to hear them.

There are a lot of things I still need to do before I go, but the one project I’m excited about is putting together my travel journal. I always take one with me whenever I go somewhere new so that I have a place to stash small souvenirs and jot down notes about my daily experiences that I can read later when I’m cooped up in the library studying.

Here’s a look at what I have so far:

Continue reading “A travel journal is a book, right?”

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