Category Archives: Book Reviews

Station Eleven: “Survival is Insufficient”

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven begins with a modern world much like our own, filled with celebrities, paparazzi, and child actors as well as normal people just struggling to determine their place in life, hopping from one lackluster job to the next, until finally achieving an idea of what fulfillment might look like. But suddenly the familiar, handheld smartphones and the nightly theatrical performances of King Lear fall silent as a devastating outbreak of what the novel calls “Georgia flu” decimates the global population. Tracing the resulting chaos, and following a revolving set of characters, Station Eleven depicts groups of Midwestern residents (locals as well as those stranded in the aftermath of the pandemic) in their attempts to come to terms with what it has lost, figure out how to rebuild, and recover a sense of normalcy.

In Station Eleven, St. John Mandel depicts a post-apocalyptic world unlike many of her predecessors’ in that she focuses on a divide between before and after: how adults cope in comparison to their children, how the memories that only a few retain begin to slowly fade, how quickly any sense of normalcy disappears. And yet, it remains remarkably hopeful, with the Traveling Symphony’s (a small troupe of Shakespearean actors and musicians) tagline reminding the reader, “survival is insufficient” (119). Even in this ravaged world, art persists. The novel urges us to seek out beauty in the world. It exhorts us to not take modernity’s benefits, such as electricity or communication across oceans, for granted. For who’s to say that some pandemic won’t wipe away all trace of the technological wonders we forget to marvel at: “[N]o more internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken” (32). The novel’s lists poetically enumerate the familiar social exchanges rendered impossible in this dystopian future.

Frequent callbacks to the time before civilization’s collapse also provide relatable insights into our fractured relationship with the modern world. One such moment appears in a flashback scene between Arthur Leander, a famous stage actor, and Clark, one of his old friends. The two meet in a restaurant, large and dimly lit. Almost immediately, Clark notices the disconnect that had grown between himself and his friend. As they catch up, Clark notices the way Arthur expresses himself, repeating phrases from recent magazine profiles, broadly emphasizing his exploits through loose, animated gestures. He is struck by “the terrible gulf of years between eighteen and fifty,” as he recognizes that “Arthur wasn’t having dinner with a friend…so much as having dinner with an audience” (112). Through subtle scenes such as this, St. John Mandel navigates the blurry space between performance and reality, revealing what can happen to friendships in a celebrity-obsessed, digital culture mediated by omnipresent camera phones. St. John Mandel also critiques modern culture when, in another scene from Clark’s life before the apocalypse, he sees himself in colleague’s description of “high functioning sleepwalkers” who “‘think work is supposed to be drudgery punctuated by very occasional moments of happiness, but when I say happiness, I mostly mean distraction’” (163). Indeed, she questions the very nature of what we call happiness, leaving the answer ambiguous at best—up for audience interpretation and contemplation long after the 333 pages have been read.

Such open-ended questions only add to the intrigue of the novel, especially as the reader notices the delicate balance and meshing of high culture and pop culture references in the text. Kirsten, a pivotal character, performs Shakespeare as a member of the Traveling Symphony, and yet “‘her favorite line of text is from Star Trek’” (120). Kirsten was a child actress when the world collapsed She now travels along Lake Michigan, performing to audiences in rapture at entertainment recalling better days. In fact, the significance of art is a pervasive thread throughout the text; in the time after the pandemic, characters struggling to come to grips with all they have lost begin to memorialize artifacts in a “museum of civilization,” regardless of whether or not these remnants help with their survival. Instead of focusing on mere existence, then, the characters ponder what it means to be human, and wonder whether art and culture are essential to human identity. The Traveling Symphony, for instance, sometimes “thought that what they were doing was noble. There were moments around campfires when someone would say something invigorating about the importance of art, and everyone would find it easier to sleep that night,” but then the difficulties of collapsed civilization return, and “it seemed a difficult and dangerous way to survive and hardly worth it” (119). This grappling between nostalgia for a past world and embrace of a new order structures the novel, as its chapters move forward and back in time; still, its plot progression depicts characters’ reinvigorated attempts to retain that past while adapting to current necessities.

For fans of post-apocalyptic, dystopian fiction, Station Eleven provides a fresh take on the genre. The diverse cast of characters the story develops and then intertwines allows readers to relate and empathize with a broad spectrum of experiences, regrets, and ideals. Kirsten is one such character, and, throughout the novel, she carries with her a reminder of the beauty of the past world: a scrap of paper, a scene from a comic called Station Eleven, the novel’s own namesake. Though she only holds one page of this fragmented text, it captures her own longing, its dialogue poignantly stating “‘we long only to go home…We dream of sunlight, we dream of walking on earth…We have been lost for so long…We long only for the world we were born into’” (302). Kirsten, like the rest of the characters, confronts her own legacy, the narrative telling us, “first we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered” (187). Throughout the novel, the lines between performance and life blur, but though these characters have been forced to trudge their way through a tarnished world, they retain their ability to find and create beauty independent of the catastrophic event that seeks to define them.

Ally Geoffray is a junior majoring in English Literature and Professional Writing at Purdue.

 

Modernizing an Ancient Epic – with Ally Geoffray

Purdue’s English Department has created a new tradition involving faculty, students, and the local community. Each year, it selects a book to highlight as its “Big Read.” This year’s book is Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey, which unflinchingly depicts its protagonist’s ambiguous nature as both victim of fate and perpetrator of heinous deeds. Looking beyond the absolutely gorgeous white and blue, gilt-lettered cover, which features the three muses in glittering gold, this new translation of the classic epic proves itself a valuable contribution to an inundated market for this particular Greek legend of Odysseus’s homecoming after the Trojan War.

First and foremost, Emily Wilson rejects our stylistic assumptions about Homeric epic, the common belief that it must be rhetorically elevated and ostentatious, full of old-fashioned diction. She argues that, “of course, the English of the nineteenth or early twentieth century,” the kind of language we most closely associate with the poem, “is no closer to Homeric Greek than the language of today” (Wilson, 87). Similarly, while she invokes the original qualities of the epic by emphasizing its oral form through the use of repetition as a mnemonic device, she also provides an originality that many translations forgo. For instance, she introduces ingenious permutations for the stock phrases the poem employs, especially through multifarious epithets like “wily Odysseus, the lord of lies” (Wilson, 240). By using accessible language that allows for more a contemporary understanding, Wilson’s translation invites attention, providing opportunities for substantial interaction between the audience and the text, a feat that seems remarkably similar to the overarching intent of the Big Read program.

Here is a piece of advice when acquainting oneself with this edition: do not skip the introduction! Although many readers have been exposed to some knowledge of this epic’s rich history, this nearly 80-page introduction includes a variety of intriguing information about topics such as the complex character of Odysseus, further background into the mystery of Homer, and actual geographic locations correlating to the different stops that Odysseus makes on his voyage homeward. It also includes a deeper look into ancient Greek gender roles and what it means to be a woman within this world—particularly some one of Penelope’s stature in contrast to women in other levels of the social hierarchy, such as the goddess Calypso or the slave women (who function as housekeepers, and as prizes to be looted when ransacking villages or during battle).

One of my favorite scenes, found in Book 5, focuses on Odysseus’s stalled voyage home, as he sits, forlornly staring out to sea, trapped on Calypso’s island with little hope of return. He desires recognition from his family and the people of Ithaca for his numerous exploits and death-defying adventures; he needs this acknowledgement in order to maintain his powerful position within society. Rather than accept a peaceful and possibly eternal life marooned on Calypso’s island, then, our protagonist longs to return home to his wife, Penelope. Still, he must remain cautious in how he portrays this yearning, especially since he must avoid provoking the goddess Calypso with whom he currently resides. In this way, he displays his central quality, metis. Emily Wilson translates this trait, one highly valued within Greek culture, as “‘cunning,’ ‘skill,’ ‘scheming,’ or purpose’” (Wilson, 36). It aptly encapsulates Odysseus’ skillful maneuvers in his responses to Calypso, his making sure to acknowledge and emphasize her beauty as superior to his wife’s, despite his urge to leave her. He manipulates the situation adroitly, portraying himself as “a man whose mind was like the gods, who had endured many heartbreaking losses, and the pain of war and shipwreck” (Wilson, 319).

Another memorable scene involves Odysseus’s interaction with Polyphemus, the cyclops child of Poseidon. After arriving on the island, the ship’s crew admires the welcoming landscape, proclaiming that “there is flat land for plowing, and abundant crops would grow in the autumn; there is richness underground” (Wilson, 244). This rhapsodizing abruptly ends, however, as they wander into Polyphemus’s cave, the home of a cyclops who displays “no shame at eating [his] own guests” (Wilson, 255)! In perhaps Odysseus’s most cunning exploit within The Odyssey, this “master of plots and plans” cajoles Polyphemus into a state of inebriation only to drive an olive spear into his captor’s eye (Wilson, 240). The descriptions that Wilson employs here are gruesomely vivid, as she describes how “[Polyphemus’s] blood poured out around the stake, and blazing fire sizzled his lids and brows, and fried the roots” (Wilson, 252). Although Odysseus’s own hubris unravels his meticulous plot when he proclaims his true name to the blinded cyclops, the critical wound he delivers to Polyphemus’s only eye still serves as the monster’s punishment for severely perverting Grecian hospitality norms.

To be sure, an integral and recurring element throughout The Odyssey is the ancient Greek custom of xenia, “a word that means both ‘hospitality’ and ‘friendship’” (Wilson, 23). It involves generously welcoming of strangers into one’s home, providing them with a place of safety, a night’s rest, and a meal before any probing questions. Odysseus benefits from this custom frequently, with people choosing “to be kind to [him]… not for [his] stories, but in fear of Zeus, the god of strangers, and because [they] feel pity for [him]” (Wilson, 344). To modern day readers, the concept of inviting strangers, random wanderers, into one’s house might seem peculiar and even dangerous, but, in The Odyssey, this custom is expected and even necessary, or else the unwelcoming host may face divine punishment. Ultimately, then, the poem explores the Greeks’ responsibilities to and fears of welcoming the unfamiliar into their homes, their culture, and their personal experiences. Throughout her translation, Wilson invites the audience to listen and to think about xenia in their own lives. In today’s world—where borders and differences seem to define relationships among individuals—The Odyssey encourages us to interact with those of different backgrounds, accepting them as they are while seeking mutual understanding. Ultimately, then, by offering a nuanced view of the complicated hero, Odysseus, and also by discouraging fear of the perceived Other, Emily Wilson manages to reconstruct The Odyssey as “a text that allows us to explore our desire for power and permanence in a world of imagination, while also showing us the darker side of these deep human dreams, hopes, and fears” (Wilson, 74).

Ally Geoffray is a junior in English Literature and Professional Writing at Purdue University.

“The underground railroad” by colson whitehead

Each year, the English Department presents its Big Read: a common read program designed to connect Purdue’s campus to the greater Lafayette area. Our book selection for 2018-2019 was Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novel, The Underground Railroad (2016). The Big Read came to a close with the department’s annual Literary Awards, where Whitehead was the keynote speaker. His visit also included a reading from The Underground Railroad and a book signing.

Set in antebellum America, The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a young slave on a southern plantation. Born and raised into U.S. slavery (the novel also includes a glimpse into Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, who was forcibly taken out of Africa and sold in America, and her mother Mabel), Cora is left an outcast after her mother runs off without her. A fellow slave named Caesar approaches Cora with an offer to flee, but she is reluctant to go with him; once conditions on the plantation worsen, however, Cora agrees.

What follows is an unconventional coming of age story, part slave narrative, part historical fiction, part magical realism, in which Whitehead transforms the metaphorical Underground Railroad of our historical memory into an actual mode of transportation. Secret tracks buried beneath the ground connect cities as “stops” along the way, while conductors like Martin, whom Cora en-counters in North Carolina, operate the train and help runaway slaves on their way to freedom.

The Big Read organizes several community events and activities, including book discussions open to the public, to foster connections between campus’ and the community’s literati. Recently, the West Lafayette Public Library was host to one such gathering of students and local residents. The review that follows is the result of an afternoon spent delving into the pages of Whitehead’s novel. While not everyone enjoyed the text, we all appreciated the beauty of Whitehead’s writing, and the story’s social significance.

Colson Whitehead talked with Dr. Dixon at our annual Literary Awards
Colson Whitehead talked with Dr. Dixon at our annual Literary Awards

The Underground Railroad is written in the third person, unlike other novels featuring enslaved female protagonists, such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. Participants worried that this narrative distance might inhibit some readers from identifying strongly with the novel’s protagonist. However, Whitehead turns this narrative pitfall into success in the presentation of his minor characters. Our group was impressed by the dynamism and roundedness of The Underground Railroad’s supporting cast—especially its villain Ridgeway. While it is easy to dismiss the slave catcher as immoral, the unbiased third person narration—plus the inclusion of a chapter from his point of view—results in a surprisingly and uncomfortably relatable character.

This is what Whitehead’s novel does best: It forces the reader to confront the gray area in what they thought was black and white—both historically and in contemporary society. Of course the slave catcher is evil, and, certainly, the brutal violence of Ridgeway and his associates bear this out. But Ridgeway is much more terrifying because we understand who he is. He, like us, has a moral code. We can disagree with that code, find it despicable, but the novel’s ambiguous treatment of Ridgeway’s fate suggests to the reader that the Ridge-ways of the world are not confined to history—they prowl among us today.

Likewise, The Underground Railroad’s America demands comparison with ours. In its opening pages, the novel shows us America through Ajarry’s eyes: “In America the quirk was that people were things… If you were a thing—a cart or a horse or a slave—your value determined your possibilities” (p. 7). This first glimpse prompted our group to wonder if the issues dealt with in the novel still affected us today, to a resounding yes. Several people drew comparisons between the slave catching scenes and the racial injustices of the 1960s and even now.

What generated the most conversation was the novel’s titular feature. In what some considered a brilliant innovation, Whitehead transformed the historical Underground Railroad—a network of abolitionists and sympathizers that ferried and sheltered runaway slaves, famously associated with Harriet Tubman—into an actual railway. This blurs the genre of the novel. Is it historical fiction? Magical realism? The result is somewhere in the middle, with the train structuring the text’s episodic nature; each chapter is like a station, and the travel motif also governs the nonlinear time frame. While Cora’s story does not progress in a sequential order, the train contextualizes the resulting disjointedness of time and space.

Our discussion ended with us considering the news that The Underground Railroad will be adapted into a television series. We were all pleased that the story could be seen on the small screen. Several people likened the possible adaptation to Roots, another slave narrative transformed into a generation-defining miniseries in the 1970s. They believed The Underground Railroad had the potential to be as culturally important in this medium.

Despite our excitement, however, we had concerns. Would the series sanitize the violence of Cora’s experience? How would it depict the Underground Railroad? Is it possible that those unfamiliar with history would take this more fantastic of version of the network as fact? On the flipside, could its magical elements be taken too far in an effort to attract viewers? The novel’s hopeful, open ending leaves space for continuing the story, and we discussed the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as an example. We don’t know if Whitehead is involved in the adaptation, but we hope the television series is faithful to what made The Underground Railroad so successful: its captivating story.

Amanda Leary is a Literature PhD Student in the English Dept. at Purdue.

You can Do Anything

Studying the liberal arts in a STEM world can often prompt the same questions over and over again: What are you going to do with that degree? Do you want to teach? How are you going to make money? Is your degree practical? George Anders’ book, You Can Do Anything (2017), answers these questions. It uses empirical data and multiple interviews with successful liberal arts graduates to argue that the “job market is quietly creating thousands of openings a week for people who can bring a humanist’s grace to our rapidly evolving high-tech future” (4).

The audience for this book is liberal arts majors, but it also aims at their families. Parents influence their children’s decision making, and, too often, their response to wanting to pursue a liberal arts path is concern or even opposition. Parents generally want what is best for their children, but this usually comes in the form of encouraging them to seek economic stability, and to pursue practical majors deemed most likely to confer it. In the twenty-first-century economy, however, mobility may be even more important than stability. Anders uses his knowledge of job market trends to assuage readers that they have what it takes to succeed at a time when technology is taking over.

            Part one of Anders’ book focuses on the strengths liberal arts graduates bring to the job market. Common wisdom has it that liberal arts seekers are jack-of-all trades but also masters of none. Students learn a little about history, a little about science, a little about everything. As Anders tell us: “A generation ago…college officials could joke that a liberal arts education ‘trains you for nothing but prepares you for everything.’ Today, you want to be brilliantly prepared and properly trained too” (21). But, as he also shows, liberal arts students are “properly trained,” just not in the conventional ways one might expect from a linear job path. While students and their parents obsess about jobs with high-paying starting salaries and very specific vocational skill sets, liberal arts students have vast room to grow and, in time, often end up exceeding their counterparts: “Fixating on starting salaries blinds us to the value of mobility… your liberal arts degree is likely to propel you ahead of many classmates with practical majors who thought they had seized an unbeatable lead at age twenty-two” (55-56).

"While students and their parents obsess about jobs with high-paying starting salaries and very specific vocational skill sets, liberal arts students have vast room to grow and, in time, often end up exceeding their counterparts."

            It sounds chaotic; in career development, as in life, there are few direct paths from point A to point B. While it may sound daunting, this model can be an asset to companies, and to newly graduated liberal arts majors looking to get hired. Why? Because those students are adaptable. Students often change majors several times in college, and they will similarly move through several jobs in a lifetime. This ability to accept change head on and face it with calm composure is not what Anders would call a “soft skill” (although that is the term most often used). Instead, he prefers the term “power skills” (43). Other power skills include: a “willingness… to tackle uncharted areas,” “finding insights,” “choosing the right approach,” “reading the room,” and “inspiring others” (32). Those who master power skills ultimately know how people work in and out of a professional setting.

This section of the book is all about embracing an explorer’s mindset. Anders tells the reader, “If your interviewer has even the haziest familiarity with the movie 300, you’re ready to talk about what it’s like to stand at a narrow pass, imagining that it’s 480 B.C., the enemy is massing—and you’ve got an ax” (33). He means that liberal arts students are used to not having the upper hand, but they are used to bravely fighting hardship and making-do with the tools at hand in any given situation.

            Parts two and three of the book address the realities of getting a degree in liberal arts. This section is great for students questioning their chances of upward mobility by pursuing a non-STEM field. On page 153, there are three charts that display typical starting salaries, midcareer salaries, and lifetime salaries in various fields. From this data, we see that liberal arts majors can make upwards of 3 to 5 million dollars in a lifetime, close to and in some instances exceeding the averages of other, more vocational or technology-based careers. Money tends to affect people’s decision making when it comes to college degrees, but starting salaries don’t determine the success of liberal arts majors. When practical majors and careers top out, liberal arts degree holders can soar. They may not make the same starting salary as engineers or doctors, but this doesn’t mean that these majors aren’t worth it or aren’t important. In a culture of instant gratification, patience is key.

"Liberal arts majors can make upwards of 3 to 5 million dollars in a lifetime, close to and in some instances exceeding the averages of other, more vocational or technology-based careers."

            One anecdote that illustrates this imperative is the story of Kaori Freda, a recent Reed College graduate. Her parents, like many adults, were skeptical about what she was going to do after college. It didn’t help when she moved to Japan and then to a remote island in the Pacific to learn more about herself, her heritage, and her potential. Yet, it was because of, and not despite, this detour that she ended up landing a “great job” with Nike. Thanks to her “overseas search for personal meaning” (204), Kaori was able to figure out what she wanted to do and relate her experiences to potential employers in a way that advocated for the skills they conferred. In other words, Kaori took a risk and she thrived.

Nowadays, students are so often told that the point of college is finding a high paying job right after graduation that they tend to forget that it is okay to explore. “There’s a bit of Kaori Freda in all of us,” Anders writes, “When you collect your diploma, you don’t yet know what kind of jobs you do best, what type of work satisfies you the most, or where the best opportunities reside. You need to experiment…No matter what your parents tell you, the great advantage of a college education isn’t long-term stability; it’s flexibility” (207). The explorer’s spirit can help us achieve success; we just have to be willing to gain a new perspective, to find adventure in everything from everyday activities to life changing experiences.

"...liberal arts majors aren’t what modern culture makes them out to be. They are highly skilled, show potential for great leadership, and are equipped to withstand the innovations of automation."

Ultimately, what readers should take away from this book is that liberal arts majors aren’t what modern culture makes them out to be. They are highly skilled, show potential for great leadership, and are equipped to withstand the innovations of automation. Whatever their choice of major, liberal arts students can hold their own amongst accountants and engineers; they will show the working world what they are made of. Just remember: “Rapid, disruptive change doesn’t ruin your prospects: it can actually play to your advantage” (9).

Georgia’s “Snacks for the Road” (Memorable Quotes):

  •  “In times of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists” (cited on pg. 16).
  • “Hundreds of psychological studies have found that people with a high level of what’s called ‘openness to new experiences’ fare somewhat better in school and, by extension, later life than those who have lower levels of it. Our world needs people who color outside the lines” (21).
  • “Pearlstein asked how many of his twenty-four students had chosen to major in a field such as history, English, or philosophy. The answer: only one. The explanation from half a dozen others: ‘My parents wouldn’t let me’” (28).
  • “Success isn’t a straight line…you will need to keep improvising your future” (54).
  • “It’s time to help meandering regain its good name” (56).
  • “42 percent of all hires happen without any trace of a formal job posting in the previous month” (82).
  • “We’d much rather hire a passionate candidate with potential than an uninspired candidate with a sparkling resume” (cited on pg. 111).
  • “It is impossible to automate the highly nuanced feat of changing people’s minds” (134).
  • “You can teach people to code, but you can’t teach people to learn” (cited on pg. 199).
  • “Every leadership question is really about communications. And every communications question is actually a leadership question in disguise” (276).

Georgia Green is a major in English Literature and a minor in Creative Writing.

The Big Read: The Underground Railroad

Looking for a good book? The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead has something for everyone. Rich in history, suspense, and emotion, the compelling characters will draw you into the surreal world of fiction even while the true-to-life horrors make you feel like you are caught in a nightmare. Read with friends and discuss your thoughts as you journey with Cora to freedom from the slavery of the deep South.