January 21, 2021
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Book Review: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Image from Goodreads

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown was a wonderful book. At several points in the book I found myself wondering what the next twist would be. The Da Vinci Code is about a symbologist named Robert Langdon. One night, while staying in Paris, he is called to the Louvre to help out on a murder investigation. The victim is in a peculiar pose with instructions to find Langdon scrawled on the floor. Little to his knowledge, Langdon is being investigated as one of the criminals. Now to clear his name, Langdon must solve the mystery himself using his knowledge of symbols.

I enjoyed how the author tied symbology into his novel. I learned things that I was not expecting to in a way that did not feel like I was in a class. I also feel that the action-packed novel kept me engaged with the characters. I often found myself sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for the next piece of the puzzle to be revealed. I highly recommend The Da Vinci Code to any who love mysteries or even to those looking for an adventure.

You can put a hold on The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown today through the JKM Library catalog and pick the book up at the library! Click here to get started.

Nerice Breen Lusen is an English Major here at Chatham University with a minor in Creative Writing. They have been working at the Jenny King Mellon Library as a student worker since their freshmen year, starting in 2018. Following their time at Chatham they plan to gain their master’s degree in Library and Information Science and become a librarian themself.

December 22, 2020
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You Need to Read This: The Best Inclusive Titles of 2020

2020 has truly been a year of turmoil and adversity, but that doesn’t mean it stopped the literature industry from producing new gems. Our shifting cultural climate has been met with a new wave of prose and poetry that addresses issues of injustice on a deeper level, and now more than ever, books are providing us with an outlet for the powerlessness we’re feeling due to the effects of this year’s chaos. In order to be culturally responsible literary citizens, we need to expand our horizons and develop as wide of a cultural canon as we can. I’ve compiled a list of 2020’s best inclusive titles and while the JKM Library is currently closed for the winter season before the next semester, upon our reopening, patrons can utilize E-ZBorrow and Interlibrary Loan to request newer titles that we may not have on our own shelves.

Best Fiction

The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich

Erdrich is known for her impressive blend of historical and literary fiction, highlighting the struggles of Native Americans suffering the effects of colonialism. The Night Watchman is loosely based on Erdrich’s grandfather’s experience working as a night watchmen during the Native dispossession era. One of the novel’s protagonists, Patrice, desires a life outside of the reservation and rejects the matriarchal roles that are set out for her, longing to move to Minneapolis to follow the lead of her older sister. The second hero, Thomas, is a night watchman and Chippewa council member on their North Dakota reservation, fighting against Congress’ new “termination” bill to eradicate Native communities. Erdrich does not romanticize life on the rez–rather, she paints a colorful cast of characters that encapsulates the essence of the Native struggle, one that is poignant, witty, and tender.

The Death of Vivek Oji, by Akwaeke Emezi

Powerhouse newcomer Akwaeke Emezi third novel addresses the intersection of African identity with queer identity, highlighting otherness, isolation, and the feeling of finding home. A deep, complex mystery that finds itself in the middle of political reform in the 1990s Nigeria, The Death of Vivek Oji forces the reader into complicated literary disorientation. The titular protagonist Vivek struggles with dissociation and a sense of belonging, befriending the mixed-race children of immigrant mothers to Africa and struggling with what he considers a “sinful” relationship. Emezi’s swirling prose coupled with the layered cultural narrative present in the novel creates a tension that is so hard to achieve in literary fiction, but when attained, is incredibly significant.

Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel, by Julian K. Jarboe

This is my personal favorite title of 2020, and for good reason. Jarboe’s debut fiction collection covers everything from cyberpunk dystopia, body horror, mythical lore, subtle romance, and stories of abusive religious institutions. All of these vastly different narratives share a common thread, though: the constant threat of being stripped of our individuality, whether it be our culture, our community, our physical vessel. Jarboe’s literary voice is spectacular from segment to segment and the pacing never falls flat. I particularly enjoyed the stories “I Am a Beautiful Bug!,” which is part love letter to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and part transgender allegory, and “Self Care,” an antiestablishment stream-of-consciousness narrative that highlights the end of times at the hands of ostentatious religiosity and greed.

Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar

Loosely inspired by Akhtar’s own experiences as an Arab-American following 9/11, Homeland Elegies tells the story of a family struggling with feelings of national dispossession. While the story is fictional, the content is autobiographical in nature, drawing directly on the oppression that Akhbar felt in the field of the humanities. He makes you long for an America that never truly existed, one that could have hyperbolized peace and unity. Rather, we’re exposed to a more complex, pessimistic America whose racial bias and detestment of immigrants bleeds through to our everyday life whether we’re cognizant of it or not.

Best Nonfiction

Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot, by Mikki Kendall

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that racial injustice has always been a reality, it has only become more apparent in the media because we have more access to the struggles of others. Kendall discusses the overwhelming power of white feminism, and how so often gender overpowers other facets of identity. The crux at which true allyship happens includes race, class, ability, and sexuality, and Kendall’s thesis statement enforces that all issues of denial to access are issues of feminism. The critique of mainstream feminist scholars is biting and well-written, tackling issues like food insecurity, education, medical care, and more in its analysis. Kendall truly reminds us that it’s not feminism unless it’s inclusive and intersectional.

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, by Cathy Park Hong

Part immigration memoir, part critical cultural studies, Hong’s essays directly confront modern-day racial consciousness here in America with a twist. What she calls “minor feelings” are stand-ins for the grief, shame, and internalized notions about race that we face in a society that is so inherently whitewashed. Hong works to unpack this implicit bias of self and others in a way that is both intellectual and entertaining, peppering in stories from her youth to punctuate the more theoretical elements of the text. Park discusses the stereotypes typically inscribed upon Asian Americans; she manages to blend the educational with the conversational in a way that even the newest of allies can process.

Me and White Supremacy, by Layla Saad

What started as an Instagram challenge to encourage white people to address their implicit biases became one of the year’s best tools for white allies to use to confront their implicit biases surrounding race and ethnicity. Saad creates a resource that elevates BIPOC people and teaches white people about their levels of privilege and unconscious engagement in the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy without forcing people of color to exert their emotional labor. So often, communities exploit the emotional and mental work of its scholars of color and assume they will be educators for white people without providing compensation. This book can provide that insight for white allies to understand that they must use their power to support people of color, and that with privilege comes a special position to support others.

The Undocumented Americans, by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

DACA recipient Villavicencio decided to start writing this collection in response to the 2016 election results, and in it paints a beautiful depiction of undocumented immigrants in the United States. She meets with immigrants all over the country and learns their stories in order to come up with some semblance of her own. It is a touching, unrestrained take on refuge and sanctuary, how with citizenship comes privilege, and the denial to access that goes hand-in-hand with undocumented status. Rather than living in the shadows of her own identity, Villavicencio advocates on behalf of other undocumented people in an unflinching critique on how our society treats those simply seeking solace in the world.

Best Poetry

Just Us: An American Conversation, by Claudia Rankine

A spiritual successor to her collection Citizen, Rankine tackles the big issues of white supremacy in a jarring collection of poems, short prose, and art. Just Us highlights the microcosms of Americana, a nation divided, and how indifference has made even liminal spaces hostile for nonwhite individuals. Rankine dives into the politics of politeness, calling attention to the way that privilege often encourages the majority to turn a blind eye to oppression and marginalization. Her poetic voice is blatant and urgent while still providing a strong aesthetic flow, a varied poetic voice that has cemented itself as one of the most striking of the 21st century.

Wicked Enchantment: Selected Poems, by Wanda Coleman.

Poetry spanning a forty-year body of work, Wicked Enchantment is a consciously anti-racist collection that confronts marginalization with humor, ennui, and sometimes anger. Coleman’s legacy on the poetry community is insurmountable, and with an introduction and edits from the great Terrence Hayes, she so rawly and honestly depicts the progression of racism in America. The poems in this collection are not about being pretty or being pleasing. They are about feeling and filling a void where society has failed us. In addition to the overarching theme of racial injustice, Coleman also tackles concepts like mental illness, wealth inequality, and the failings of the healthcare system particularly against Black women. This is a dense read, but a very worthwhile one.

Music for the Dead and Resurrected: Poems, by Valzhyna Mort

Belarusian poet Mort discusses the traumatic intergenerational legacy of war and propaganda in this heart-wrenching collection of love letters to the dead. She weaves historical elements like World War II, Soviet labor camps, and tyrannical dictatorships throughout the text, tracing the timeline of her native country’s development to her and her family’s experiences in these toxic, violent environments. Tethering her own coming-of-age with the mythology of a fragmented nation, Mort creates a lyricism of ghosts, an existence that will always be permeated by the atrocities committed against or by our ancestors. Music for the Dead and Resurrected confronts the American historical myths and forces the reader to take an uncomfortable but nonetheless poetic look at how they got to where they are.

Inheritance, by Taylor Johnson

A recent release, Taylor Johnson asserts the precariousness of poor Black identity in a nation that constantly surveils our most at-risk populations in this collection. They elaborate in their poems about the intrinsic link of capitalism to the exploitation of bodies of color, and with broad lyricism, Johnson opens a dialogue as to what a world without the boundaries of class and financial standing would look like. Cynicism of cultural monoliths permeate the text as Johnson conveys their theories through the lens of radical love and sex. There is a stark juxtaposition of lightheartedness with the prison industrial complex, pleasure against poverty. This jarring dichotomy conveys the meaning of the collection: suffering will always plague us so long as we allow ourselves to adhere to oppressive cultural rules.

Best Children’s and Young Adult

You Should See Me in a Crown, by Leah Johnson

Johnson’s debut novel is one that is sweet and fun, typical of YA, but tackles the very real issues of growing up a minority in small-town America. Protagonist Liz Lighty views herself as being “too Black, too poor, too awkward” to be taken seriously in her rural, conservative community, and she desires nothing more than to break out of this restrictive town and attend a prestigious university. Johnson highlights the very real threat of financial insecurity that plagues teens and young adults, and Liz’s reluctant journey to attain prom royalty to assure financial aid is an interesting subversion of the traditional high school narrative. It’s so important to see young, empowered Black girls in stories where they have agency and dreams, and where their hardships are not fetishized–Johnson creates a new kind of Black hero in Liz, one in which many young viewers can see bits of themselves.

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, by Hank Green

The follow-up to Hank Green’s bestseller An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is just as stunning as its predecessor, a science-fiction tale that tackles concepts like colonization, decimation of lands, and class consciousness. Green’s social commentary is presented in a youth-friendly way, fast-paced and action-packed. The elements of mystery and eclectic cast of characters is what will draw you in, but the interesting theories surrounding technology, reality, and virtuality will keep you coming back for more. Considering Green’s science background, there’s validity to the scientific elements of the text, but it’s not so academic that it’ll go over the head of the readers.

Clap When You Land, by Elizabeth Acevedo

In a similar style to her bestseller The Poet X, Acevedo crafts a novel-in-verse that ties together the notions of togetherness and grief in an incredibly touching testament to the power of familial love. Camino, who lives in the Dominican Republic, and Yahaira, who lives in New York City, are sisters who are totally unaware of one another’s existence until a horrible tragedy brings them together. Their intrinsic connection forces them to think about the boundaries between their cultures and what sorts of secrets lurked within their families. The blend of poetry and prose makes for an easy reading experience and the content helps to show the subtle differences between groups of Latinx identity.

The Degenerates, by J. Albert Mann

Disability is a subject of intersectionality that we don’t see too often in modern fiction, or at least when it’s not portrayed in the unfortunate genre of “inspiration porn.” The Degenerates does not glamorize the disabled experience in the case of mental, physical, and learning disabilities. Taking place in an institution for the mentally ill or disabled, these girls are not portrayed as weak, simple, or naive. Instead, they are empowered and fierce young women, dedicated to escaping the system that oppresses them. The Degenerates also doesn’t shy away from the severity of institutionalization–the interactions are coarse, belittling, and show the reality of living with a disability in a world that does not provide access or accommodations.

Carina Stopenski is the Access Services Associate at Chatham University’s Jennie King Mellon Library. They started out as a student worker while getting their creative writing degree at Chatham, and received their Master’s of Library Science at Clarion University in summer 2020. They enjoy games of both the board and video persuasion, vegan baking, and reading graphic novels. They also teach cultural studies and “cartoon theory” classes on the platform Outschool.

December 14, 2020
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Book Review: Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Image from Goodreads

The book Carmilla is an 1872 English novella by J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Carmilla can be downloaded as a PDF from the library’s website or it can also be requested in tangible form through E-ZBorrow (when E-ZBorrow is accessible). The novella features the first appearances of a female vampire in English gothic literature. Carmilla served as an inspiration for Brim Stoker’s Dracula, which was published about twenty-five years later in May of 1897.

The novella begins with a prologue from a doctor’s assistant explaining that the tale that follows is a recounting of events that befell one of the doctor’s patients. It is told from a young woman named Laura’s point of view. She begins by telling the reader of her first encounter with Carmilla when she was just six years old, saying that it is her oldest memory. She is left scared and scarred from this encounter.

The story picks up years later as Laura explains the castle she and her father have come to live in. Together with Laura’s governess and “finishing governess” – as Laura calls her – Laura and her father live in Syria but are originally from England. One day Laura and her father receive a letter from one General Spielsdorf. He has unfortunately cancelled his visit to them because his niece and ward had died, claiming that she was killed by a monster. On a walk shortly after, a carriage crashes in front of Laura and her father. The riders of the carriage consist of an elderly woman and a younger woman the elder claims as her daughter.  The young woman is hurt in the crash but seeing as her mother is on an important journey, she leaves her daughter in the care of Laura’s father. The girl is introduced as Carmilla, and Laura is excited to have a friend to spend the foreseeable days with.

I thought the novella was well written, though the dialect – being that of the 1800’s can be a bit confusing for the modern reader. While I was reading there were passages that I read twice to make sure I understood them, but I don’t think this detracted from the story that was being told. Carmilla, the character, was not forth coming with details about herself. This gripped me as a reader and made me want to read onwards.

Vampires are often characterized in stories with alluring and mysterious airs. Carmilla is no exception. There are often times in the story where either Carmilla speaks to Laura, vice versa, or even when Laura describes Carmilla to the reader that shows an attraction between the girls – romantically and even physically. It is not explicit in the novel that Carmilla and Laura are together in any sense, but it creates a dynamic between the two characters that made me want to read more. It made me what to learn more about the mysterious Carmilla just as Laura wished to.

The story is not one of grand fights or intense dramas like novels or novellas of today, but I felt that Carmilla was a great book. It is a quick read and holds themes and motifs that are ahead of its time.

Nerice Breen Lusen is an English Major here at Chatham University with a minor in Creative Writing. They have been working at the Jenny King Mellon Library as a student worker since their freshmen year, starting in 2018. Following their time at Chatham they plan to gain their master’s degree in Library and Information Science and become a librarian themself.

September 10, 2019
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Book Recommendation: How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

In Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, she makes a strong case for moving away from the capitalist idea that we need to be constantly optimizing, producing, and innovating. Instead, we should turn our attention back to our actual place in the world and try to reconnect with people, animals, and our bioregion in a way that repairs the harmful results of behavior capitalism has encouraged and even required of us.

With the rise of internet culture, student and credit card debt, the gig-economy, environmental and social crises, and late stage capitalism, we find ourselves increasingly burnt out and restricted. As a group, humans are disconnected and fractured. We spend so much time working or distracted by the internet and media that we regularly forget to look up.

According to Odell, removing ourselves from the attention economy and invasive addictive technology for a time allows us to refocus our attention. Her book does an amazing job at illustrating how powerful our attention is, both for destruction and for building. She uses successful acts of activism from the past as examples of the positive power of our combined sustained focus. Unfortunately, our attention is currently being drained from us at a rate impossible for us to maintain, hence the constant overwhelmed state. Due to that, we no longer know how to focus together as a group on shared goals.

Odell champions the idea that not every space, be it physical, digital, or mental, needs to have what capitalism would consider a net gain. Not every idea or thought needs to be profitable. Sometimes the important work is not that of optimizing, but of sustaining. To undo the harm of constant “innovation”, humans can learn instead how to be stewards of the spaces around them, offering only the amount of support needed for it to maintain a stable existence.

Odell brings in ideas from environmentalism, art, technology, psychology, philosophy, sociology, and more to illustrate her points. Part of the beauty of How To Do Nothing is watching Odell seamlessly blend together these multiple concepts into a cohesive message. Odell, a visual artists and professor at Stanford, is both highly academic and engaging in her discussion. How To Do Nothing is incredibly well researched without being dry.

Odell’s arguments feel plausible and urgent. This is important for a book discussing what might be considered by some as a breakdown of society. Those who read How To Do Nothing will see their world in a new light and, if Odell has been successful, be inspired to make changes to how they exist in it.

You can checkout Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy from the JKM Library today!

June 17, 2019
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Book Recommendation: The Stranger

Image from Goodreads

Imagine it’s 1942. You’re French. Einstein has already refuted the absolutist notions of time and space, Darwin’s findings have nearly dismantled creationism, and Freud has speculated that there’s a subconscious realm where much of the mind’s processes are at work. Nietzsche fathomed nihilism, addressing the question: what would happen to a post-religious society? Worse yet, the Nazis have risen; you’ve been warring with Germany for three years.

Albert Camus published his debut novel, The Stranger, in this context. The soccer-loving philosopher writes an apathetic, emotionless protagonist who searches for meaning in a meaningless world. Camus prescribes a set of absurdist strategies for dealing with love, grief, and violence. In short, he suggests one ought to refrain from investing in such matters.

Though Camus personally rejected the term ‘existentialist,’ he is often grouped with his existentialist contemporaries. Like them, Camus rejected the notion of a universal purpose. No overarching truth or religion suits existentialists, nor do they accept the notion of a comprehensive moral code befitting to all. Fundamentally, they believe human flourishing is a myth; life is nothing more than a waiting room, and the room is full of hardship, loss, and setbacks. Ironically, from this rejection of Meaning arises a new purpose. The existentialists’ simple commandment is to treat life as something to conquer. Do not get bogged down with other people or expectations or feelings or morality. Existentialists urge: do what you want to do, precisely when you want to do it.

All of these philosophies are instantiated in Meursault—a man who traipses around avoiding his feelings to a nearly sociopathic degree. He makes sense of his world by suspending his passions. In the opening pages, for example, when the reader discovers that Meursault’s mother has died, the protagonist treats the event as a mild annoyance. One might expect that this degree of flippancy could only arise from someone who despises his parentage. Yet Meursault does not seem angry. Rather, he appears dispassionate, reacting as if his own mother were not the one dead.

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August 13, 2018
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Book Recommendation: Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe

 

Image taken from Amazon

Lori Jakiela opens her memoir with a line as humble as the title, describing her memoir “primarily a work of nonfiction.” What follows is a dramatic account of Jakiela’s search to make contact with her biological family after the death of her adoptive parents. Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe is an evocative story of one woman’s yearning for closure, love, and family.

The presentation of these ideals are developed through Jakiela’s description of loss. She articulates her pain in ways that are acute, poignant, familiar. Her pages are decorated with mediations on a particular grief—the kind of unique sorrow that stems from her identity as an adoptee. Through her attempts to contact her native family, for example, she continues, with insistence, to refer to her adoptive family as her “real” family.

Some craft elements will engage readers from the start. Jakiela, a native Pittsburgher, describes a setting that Chatham students will find pleasantly relatable. More uniquely, Jakiela subtly challenges storytelling conventions through experimental use of dialogue. She presents uninterrupted, staccato quotes and repetitive dialogue tags, both of which reveal a one-of-a-kind style—clever and intentional in its pacing.

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