Orwell’s Reminders of Absurdities

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By Elyse Ferris

Contemporary political discourse has caused a surge in sales of George Orwell’s groundbreaking dystopian novel 1984. Remembering Big Brother’s brainwashing methods and ‘newspeak,’ Orwell readers connected aspects of the book to Kellyanne Conway’s comments about “alternative facts” following President Trump’s inauguration. The discussion of ‘alternative facts’ and the comeback of 1984 also call to mind interpretations of Orwell’s book in general, as well as the seemingly contradictory points of his ideology.

I first read George Orwell’s 1984 for a high school English class, and I was entranced. I recognized how aspects of the novel might have inspired contemporary literature for younger audiences, such as Lois Lowry’s The Giver, or other series like The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, and Divergent. I tried to identify a common significance between these examples of dystopian literature. I came to think that some of these books were made almost exclusively for entertainment purposes, but others send a stronger message. What does dystopian literature (particularly that which includes a totalitarian state) imply about the reach of government? To what extent did Orwell intend for 1984 to be a warning?

   I think I misinterpreted 1984 to some degree the first time I read it. I identified what appeared to be contradictions not only within the story (such as Big Brother’s idea of ‘truth’) but also in the thoughts presented by Orwell himself. I was surprised to learn that he was liberal, indeed a socialist. Initially viewing his work simply as a book with straightforward, anti-government sentiments, I assumed he must have been a zealous pacifist and  libertarian. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Orwell began to consider himself a socialist in the 1930’s, but “he was too libertarian in his thinking ever to take the further step – so common in the period – of declaring himself a communist.” For a while, it was almost impossible for me to reconcile these opposing viewpoints. I couldn’t understand how someone could be part libertarian, part socialist.

I still sometimes struggle with the idea, but I think it’s important to remember the political context in which Orwell developed his views and wrote his books.


   Britannica says Orwell’s articles and essays during WWII revealed a mixture of his patriotic, libertarian, and decentralized socialist ideas. I believe that 1984, the last novel of his life, points to his vision for a compromise of government’s societal role. Orwell recognized government’s beneficial potential, but hated its invasive potential to control and manipulate. We can speculate that in the aftermath of WWII, Orwell feared a future in which the world was divided up between just a few powers. Maybe it was only natural for one’s mind to wander when observing interactions between the ‘big three’ (Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin D. Roosevelt) in the early stages of the Cold War. A future of totalitarianism around the globe was not necessarily inevitable, but its potential must have been great enough to inspire aspects of the book. Orwell’s warning in 1984 does not detract from his faith in the state. Overall, I still see the novel as a cautionary tale which warns against the dangers of extreme nationalism, thoughtless submission, and totalitarianism.

In a similar regard, does contemporary dystopian literature aim, above all, to send a message? If so, I think its message can often be misconstrued. For example, The Hunger Games series features the downtrodden citizens of the Panem districts whose backbreaking labor benefits the capital. I think people could observe this from a couple of different perspectives: 1. citizens suffer at the hands of a cruel totalitarian regime which, like Big Brother, watches everything, or 2. an abused proletariat rebels against the elite, addressing their grievances and fighting for rights and equality. The way I see it, readers could focus on blaming the Panem government for the suffering of the districts. On the other hand, they could view the story as a struggle of rich versus poor, emphasizing similarities between the citizens of Panem districts and lower classes of contemporary society who fight inequality.

Maybe people will always just see what they want to see. I think we are often tempted to interpret ideas based on our own bias and predispositions, picking out thoughts here and there that we agree with, sometimes ignoring the rest. Readers (*guilty as charged*) can pick up 1984 and gather from it a defense for a political ideology which they’ve already been exposed to. Perhaps Orwell had an idyllic potential in mind. Perhaps ‘alternative facts,’ like newspeak, are simply a contradictory construct used to push an agenda. I think Orwell condemned ignorance as he encouraged a healthy degree of skepticism of authority and bias. 1984 reminds readers that political absurdities and contradictions are simply inevitable.

“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidarity to pure wind.”

 – George Orwell 

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The Goldfinch: The Audience Who Loved it, and the Critics Who Hated it

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When Donna Tartt’s much anticipated novel The Goldfinch hit bookstore shelves in 2013, the reaction was instantaneous.

Unwary shoppers found themselves caught up in the tidal wave of die-hard Tartt fans who had been waiting over ten years for her newest book. Together, they poured into stores, buying and ordering copies of the novel at accelerating rates. The book jumped onto the New York Times bestseller list and sat tight for nearly a year, selling over a million and a half print and digital copies, and drawing in rave reviews from the likes of Michiko Kakutani and Stephen King.

Because of the book, Tartt was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The producers of The Hunger Games buckled down to create a film/television series based on the novel. New York’s Frick Collection, which had just begun exhibiting the painting for which the book was named, was suddenly accosted by throes of tourists who just wanted to see the piece of art that started it all.

But when The Goldfinch was entered into the running for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that year, that was the last straw. A mix of critics, simmering in a stewy silence, finally bubbled over the edge.

“Its tone, language, and story belong in children’s literature,” wrote The New Yorker book critic James Wood. According to Wood, the book was full of relentless, far-fetched plotting and stock characters, and was simply undeserving of the literary respect it had received.

“Tartt’s novel is not a serious one—it tells a fantastical, even ridiculous tale, based on absurd and improbable premises,” he said.

The Goldfinch did end up taking home the prestigious award, much to the dismay of many literary critics, who panned the novel just like Wood did. And so, the question was posed: Was our literary culture being infantilized? Were we finally sinking into a doomed world where adults read Harry Potter and Twilight instead of Moby-Dick and The Tale of Two Cities?

In a way, this concern made sense. The plot of The Goldfinch is certainly an outlandish one. The novel follows the troubled life of Theo Decker, whose world is turned upside down when he is swept up in a catastrophic event at an art museum in New York City that kills his mother. Panicked, thirteen-year-old Theo steals a famous painting, titled “The Goldfinch,” in order to save it during the chaos. Drawn into a life full of drugs and crime, Theo tumbles from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, coming of age with a haunting secret: he is in possession of a piece of art that many are desperate to get their hands on.

But the supposed lack of “seriousness” of The Goldfinch did not stop readers from buying the book. It did not stop Tartt from enjoying wild literary success, achieving more attention and praise than any of her past books combined. Whether the critics liked it or not, the novel served as a catalyst for the shifting in literary tastes, an accurate representation of what the public wanted to read in the early 21st century.

Hate it or love it, The Goldfinch proves that people will read what they want to read. And if that means tossing “seriousness” to the wind, then so be it.

-Virginia Kettles

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Here’s to the Love of Books: Pursuing Publishing

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by Laurel Myers

I love books. This phrase is typical of an English major—so hello, that’s me, guilty as charged. I learned to read when I was three and have always lived within a block of the public library in my town. My mom would call the librarians when I was big enough to walk across streets by myself and let them know I was on my way. I always ended up walking home with a stack almost as high as me with a book propped open on the top so I could read on the way back. When I woke up, I would read until the smell of bacon cooking wafted up the stairs. When I was going to sleep, I read until I came to a good stopping point (sometimes) or I finished the book (more likely) or I fell asleep (okay, this one happened the most). I took books with me in the car, even if we were just going to the grocery store; I took books to school and read when I should have been working on homework or talking to friends; I took a book with me… I think you get the point. I was never without a book, as if the pages were an additional appendage. My punishment when I was a kid? Having my books taken away.


   Little kids are always asked what they want to do when they grow up, and my list leaned towards the sciences: marine biologist was up there for a while, followed by zoologist, and joining Doctors Without Borders was a possibility until I was told that wasn’t really a “job job.” Then, bioengineering somehow became the major I was looking at for college. After an internship in a pulmonary-cardiovascular research lab, I realized a career spent in a lab was not for me and that my aversion to math might be a slight problem. Although I felt like I had wasted a summer, this experience actually saved me from wasting even more time and money going to college for a career I would not ultimately enjoy. (I would like to emphasize career, as science is a compelling subject that I find fascinating). Because of that summer, I was forced to reevaluate what I could see myself studying for four years and then dedicating my life to.

Which brings us back to the “I love books” statement. I found myself wondering if I could be paid for reading for all day, because who wouldn’t love that? I had been training my whole life! I was practically a professional already.

   I happen to also watch a copious amount of Netflix, which is how I came across two movies that presented an answer to me: Not Another Happy Ending and Genius. These films follow the relationships between a publisher and an author, along with the arduous process of developing a book. In Not Another Happy Ending, an author with a best-selling book is not able to write the sequel because she is too happy, so her publisher attempts to remedy her writer’s block by making her miserable. Genius tells the story of Tom Wolfe (a Washington and Lee alum and past editor of Shenandoah) and his publisher Maxwell Perkins’ friendship developing as they work on manuscripts together through the tumultuous changes of life. While they are most certainly different in genre and tone, there is a striking similarity between the two: the passion and drive to create good books.

   I have always been a consumer of books and love the worlds they took me to, but I had never thought about how they were produced. The world of publishing that exists behind all of these stories is one I want to venture into and figure out how all of the gears and mechanics work together to create such mesmerizing works. Once I wrapped my head around the fact that there was indeed a job where I could read manuscripts and converse with the creators of fantastical journeys, I declared an English major and looked for a way to begin introducing myself to this profession.

Interning at Shenandoah is a direct connection to publishing and all of the nuances and skills needed. Looking at the inundation of submissions to the magazine highlights the importance of having a concrete list of what makes a good story, which means you actually have to work through and know what belongs on the list. Working with R.T. Smith is to be working with a prolific and successful writer who has an incredible knowledge of the literary sphere. Writing these blogs and finding poems of the week forces me to put my own work and interests out into the public eye, which is oftentimes a terrifying thought. Spearheading the Greybeal-Gowen Prize for Poetry reveals the range of authors and their determination to have people other than themselves read their work. Shenandoah also encourages my interest in simply reading, as there are wonderful stories and poems in this literary magazine that I would not have otherwise found.

I am also fortunate enough to have friends trust my editing skills and my honesty when reading through their work. I edited a short story for a friend trying to publish it in a literary magazine, and was astounded by how some simple questions and critiques transformed the writing into a driven, focused, and astonishing piece. I fell in love with the process of give and take between writer and editor, and I am happy to be working with another friend on a novel, which I am learning is an entirely different beast.

Apparently, my passion has always been right there in my hands.

Here’s to the love of books.

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Judging a Book by its (Gendered) Cover

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By Virginia Kettles

In 2013, the New York Times bestselling author Deborah Copaken wrote an essay about her experiences watching her books be “girlified” for publishing.

In the essay, Copaken spoke about the publication of her first book, a memoir about her experiences as a war photographer. After purchasing the rights, Random House changed the title of her manuscript to Shutterbabe and designed a cover involving a naked cartoon torso against a pink background with a camera covering the genitalia. It took a long fight on Copaken’s side to convince the publishers to rethink the design.

Such is the case for gender-specific advertising, and, as the saying goes, it doesn’t hurt that “sex sells.”

While there is little data readily available on the exact trends of this phenomenon, gender-specific advertising in regards to book covers has become increasingly common.

Walking into any local bookstore, customers can often find two kinds of books: ones with dark colors, thick, heavy fonts, and simple images, and others with lighter, muted colors, cursive fonts, and images of attractive, usually Caucasian, women. Some, as if by instinct, will unconsciously make assumptions on what kind of person wrote the book and, as a result, who the book is catered towards.

What’s wrong with this? Perhaps nothing. After all, a marketing tactic like that must be successful if it is practiced so freely. Consumers are perfectly able to purchase what they like. If that means we humans are slaves to our unconscious preferences that parallel the stereotypes associated with our gender, then so be it.

But this comes at a cost.

Johnson, a successful young adult author, wrote an essay about the uncomfortable attribution of gender and quality when it came to discussing books. According to her, books written by women, and especially books written by women ABOUT women, are often pegged as being of a lower quality.

“When I hear people talk about ‘trashy’ books, 95% of the time, they are talking about books written by women. When I see or hear the terms ‘light,’ ‘fluffy,’ ‘breezy,’ or ‘beach read’…95% of the time, they are talking about books written by women.”

Thus, I wondered. If femininity is not taken seriously in the literary world, what does that say about the book covers that employ the feminine theme so heavily? If a person is presented with a feminine-looking cover, will they see the book as being of a lower quality? Would they be interested in reading the book? Would they think the book could win an award?

As a senior in high school, I tested just that.

I created 3 pairs of fake book covers, where one was garnered towards women, and the other towards men, based on the author’s gender, the font, and the image in the background. I attached the different covers to surveys, in which I asked questions about what the book’s quality seemed to be, and whether the book was likely to win a literary award. I then distributed the survey to about 200 students and a handful of teachers at my high school.

The results were fascinating. While the gender of the author for the book Outsider made little difference when it came to the perceived quality of the book, the fonts and images in the other books elicited substantially different reactions. Participants saw the desk-and-skull background for The Study Side as being of a higher quality, and the bold-faced fonts of The Broke Test even more so. In comparison, the image of the woman-smelling-flowers background, or the frilly fonts, did not impress the participants.

It seems there is still a lot to be said about how people view femininity in terms of respect and reputability in the literary world.

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Shenandoah Abides

The other day Shenandoah‘s editor, the great R.T. Smith (Rod), reached out to me about preparations for the Spring issue. It struck me then that we have been doing this since the Spring of 2011. Oh how six years flies by.  I track it time-wise in my mind right alongside the semester ds106 went open and online. Martha Burtis helped me code the design for the site, and while it might be high-time for a redesign, I think it’s held up quite well.* It was built on WordPress Multi-Site, and each issue has its own WordPress instance defined by issue issue and number, such as issue 65, volume 2issue 66, volume 1, etc. The architecture was pretty simple. 

They also got rolling with a blog that has seen, on average, more than 5 posts a month for the last 6 years. Rod has become quite a blogger himself, and the move from print to digital for Shenandoah was quiet and consistent. They regularly produced new issues, blogged about the work, and made the literary offerings from the last 12 issues free and open to anyone with a browser. What’s more, every time I work on Shenandoah it makes me think of Claudia Emerson, the late poet and friend, who got me the gig thanks to the work I did with her literary journals class. Can’t think of too many better people or teachers I have ever met. The recent issue features a powerful reminder how many hearts Claudia lives in.

BEYOND AUTOBIOGRAPHY: Claudia Emerson Through Three Poems on Race

So my work for the Shenandoah gladly continues.  There will be a day when Rod retires and a new crew comes in and rethinks the site, but until then this is one of the projects I’ve been a part of over the last 6 years that has been truly grounding. I am no literary expert, but I like doing my small part to get a little more imaginative thinking and writing out on the web.

Anyway, after Rod reached out about the upcoming issue I realized this was the sixth year we’ve been doing this, so I got curious about the numbers. I’ve been tracking the site in Google Analytics since the beginning, and just two weeks ago the site hit the 1 million page view mark, with almost half a million visitors, and 600,000 sessions. What’s been most interesting to me about these numbers is the growth over the last two years to get almost 20,000 hits a month during the semester. That is 4x as many as in 2013, and twice as many during 2014. The last half of 2015, all of 2016, and the first few months of 2017 have suggested the journal has grown a pretty significant readership. That said, numbers on the web can be meaningless when you look at how many times Gangham Style was been viewed any given week. But Shenandoah abides, and twice a year you’ll get an outpouring of new literary work to the web, and that’s what I like about it.

  • She was also kind enough to let me pay her in erratic installments given those were the very lean years for the bavas. 
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An Apology for Literature

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An Apology for Literature

by Arlette Hernandez

I’m the first to admit that I’ve never been a fan of the early modern period. All throughout high school, I dreaded reading Shakespeare. My first English class in college, a seminar on revenge tragedies, was painful. It felt like weights were pulling down on my arms as I waded my way through the prose of Middleton and Kyd and Marlowe. As compelling as the plots sounded, reading something like The Spanish Tragedy was made difficult by the fact that it seemed so dated and irrelevant. Though, I’ll never forget some of the real gems I found in Shakespeare’s plays.

It wasn’t until this year in my literary theory class that I began to gain an appreciation for the early modern period. And all thanks to Sir Philip Sidney.

In 1595, Sir Philip Sidney, a prominent figure and author of the Elizabethan period published his essay An Apology for Poetry, also known as A Defence of Poesy. The essay was a response to The School of Abuse (1579), “a moralistic attack on poetry written by Puritan minister Stephen Gosson and dedicated (without leave) to Sidney himself” (Richter 112). Commenting on contemporary perceptions of the arts, Sidney writes, “Poetry, which from almost the highest estimation of learning is fallen to be the laughingstock of children” (116). The rest of the piece is an attempt to restore poetry’s dignity, while overturning all the claims lain against it.

But even though this essay was written in the 16th century, I cannot help but think of our current socio-political moment every time I read it. There’s been a lot of talk about the possible defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts. And looking at the departmental statistics of any university, one can see a decrease in the popularity of subjects within the arts and humanities. English departments across the nation are struggling to recruit majors, while business programs are seeing an influx of students (look below for some fun infographics). All this to say, our society seems to privilege the “practical,” or the “scientific” while marginalizing the arts and the humanities. Every time I tell someone I’m an English major the immediate response I get is, “Oh, what are you going to do with that?” or “You’re not going to make a lot of money.” History is repeating itself, and a lot of us in the arts are finding our craft under attack.

The Most Popular College Majors 2012

From Visually.

My goal is not to cause a rift or demonize any one party, but rather to emphasize the importance of the arts in our society. As someone who wants to go into education, I’m always thinking about the different ways I would run a classroom, and literature and creative writing always plays an important role.

I’ve gone to public schools my whole life—both really good ones, and some that were not so good. But one of the things I’ve seen repeatedly is a student withdrawing the moment he or she can’t emotionally invest in their own education. I think that’s why many of my teachers in elementary school were so adamant about acknowledging holidays like Black History Month. How are you supposed to reach out to a classroom full of students of color who are either keenly or subliminally aware of their position in society from watching television shows or the five o’clock news or even just going to the grocery store with their parents?

Here is where literature comes in, and here is why I think it’s so important.

I had never read a novel written by a person of color until I left high school. By the beginning of my freshman year of college, I had read five Shakespeare plays, poems by Wordsworth and Keats, and “canonical” novels like Madame Bovary, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Catcher in the Rye; but nothing by Morrison or Hurston or Ellison. I never saw myself in the curriculum except as a slave or an impoverished immigrant; always as an “oppressed minority,” rarely as a successful person.

No kid should have to go through this. We need to teach our kids that for every Joseph Conrad, there is a Chinua Achebe. For every Emily Dickinson, a Gwendolyn Brooks. English is without a doubt a “practical” major. It teaches people how to think critically and how to engage with history, psychology, and our physical and social surroundings. We can’t give up on literature because it has so much to teach us. And we especially can’t give up on the production of contemporary literature because with every publication of novel written by a woman or a person of color, a queer individual or an immigrant, a disabled person or a religious minority, we are reshaping a literary canon that has traditionally excluded several of these groups. These works show disadvantaged students that they have a place in our society, in the world, while increasing the overall empathy of a classroom’s students. Encouraging a student to engage in the arts shows them that they have the power to produce things, that their voices can be heard, and their experiences are important.

For these reasons, and so many more, I will always believe in the importance of literature and the arts. I’ll channel my inner Philip Sidney and keep defending it until the day I’m gone.

Richter, David H. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd ed. Boston: Bedford St Martin’s, Macmillan Learning, 2016. Print.

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Sidestepping the Book vs. Movie Debate

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“That’s not how it’s supposed to happen.”

“She was much more likable in the book.”

How could they leave out James Potter’s backstory?”

When it comes to watching a movie that is based off of a book, there’s nothing worse than being in a room with a disgruntled reader who constantly feels the need to point out the differences between the two. And yet, admittedly, I’m often guilty of being that obnoxious, disgruntled reader.

While friends watching with me may be blissfully unaware of the details left out from the book, I struggle to stifle my complaints about the discrepancies. Given that the director is not privy to my subconscious screenplays, I guess it’s to be expected that the movie version is often drastically different from how I imagined the scenes while reading the novel. Yet somehow I still feel like he or she has personally let me down.

Whether from distractingly over-the-top production choices (looking at you, The Great Gatsby (2013)) or from being primarily focused on its perfect-looking cast (every Nicholas Sparks adaptation, ever), the full essence of a book is often lost in its conversion to the big screen. Nothing was more horrifying than when one of my favorite children’s books was turned into a film with a grotesque, feline-version of Mike Myers clad in a red and white striped hat. Even the Harry Potter film franchise— despite the fact that I honor Harry Potter Weekend marathons on ABC Family as something close to religious holidays— left some gaps that I may never totally come to grips with.

I know that often this criticism is not wholly deserved. Directors and screenwriters have a huge disadvantage in capturing what authors can fit in as many pages as they desire to an appropriate length film. Still, my aggravated chirps continue to spout unbidden from my mouth. If you’re like me in this aspect, I’ve found a substitution, though not a real solution. Some movies that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed are ones that are very loosely based off of books, but aren’t intended to follow the same plot line at all.

A prime example lies in Jane Austen adaptations. I love all of her novels, and yet for the most part I’ve been disappointed by the films. While I’m a fan of Keira Knightley and Gwyneth Paltrow in general, their depictions of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse did not live up to my (admittedly high) expectations of the characters from reading the novels. My preferred substitutions? Bridget Jones and Cher Horowitz.

The modern day adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and Emma come in the comical forms of Bridget Jones’ Diary and Clueless, respectively. While serious Austen scholars may spurn me for praising such frivolous comedies as satisfactory performances of her acclaimed novels, these were two films that did not, if I’m channeling my inner Mrs. Bennet, upset my poor nerves. The fact that they were so obviously intended to be only inspired by the novels made them easier for me to accept than most movie adaptations, as rather than looking for differences, I instead noticed the similarities. They bring Austen’s understated humor and clever societal critiques to the forefront. By replacing corsets with mini skirts and the dignified world of Highbury with 1990s Beverly Hills, Clueless makes the storyline of Emma more applicable to modern audiences while still following the transformation and revelations of an overly confident and meddlesome young woman in the form of Cher Horowitz. Similarly, Bridget Jones, while a messier and perhaps more alcohol-dependent version of Elizabeth Bennet, demonstrates a woman’s hasty judgments about two males contending for her affections, one of whom is her very own Mr. Darcy.

Another film adaptation that’s even more of a stretch from the novel but still worth mentioning is The Scarlet Letter-esque movie Easy A. Like most highschool students, I suffered through the required studying of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s celebrated novel as a ninth-grade English student. I have to admit, I’d take Emma Stone’s witty banter over Hawthorne’s stuffy language any day. Though in the form of a slapstick teen comedy, on a deeper level Easy A still deals with how female promiscuity is received by society. The continued double standards that Olive, like Hester before her, faces make us question whether we’ve really come that far as a society from 17th-century Puritanical Boston, at least when it comes to the hypocrisy in the way sexuality of women compared to men is viewed. Besides, anything’s better than the 1995 film version with Demi Moore, which boasts a nude bath scene, a different ending than the novel, and, by no coincidence, a Golden Raspberry Award for “Worst Remake or Sequel.”

At the present, I’m still working on being able to withhold my indignant comments and reserve my judgment when watching book-based movies. In the meantime, however, I’ll always opt instead for freely adapted versions of novels when they’re available. If listening to more of Cher’s shrill “As if”’s or Bridget’s drunken wailings of “All By Myself” is what it takes, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

-Emily Cole


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Kathie Odom’s “Sabbath”

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by Laura Calhoun

I first discovered Kathie Odom’s work on Cabell Gallery’s website.  Shenandoah was looking for art to feature in our spring issue at the time, so I brought Odom’s website to the attention of our editor, R.T. Smith.  He related most to the subject matter of old buildings, a recurring theme throughout Odom’s work, and asked me to contact the artist.  Within twenty minutes, I was talking with Mr. Odom, Kathie’s husband and assistant who was kind and open to the idea of featuring Kathie’s work in Shenandoah.  A week later, after discovering that Cabell Gallery was located a few hundred feet from the Shenandoah offices, a deal was made.

Kathie Odom is from Knoxville, Tennessee, and has received many awards from plein air events across the country, including in states like Arizona and Vermont.  Her painting style is described as “nostalgic impressionism,” easily identified by the bright earth tones and daydream-like quality of Kathie’s work.  One painting R.T. Smith and I quickly agreed upon including is Sabbath (oil on linen, 30 x 40).

The church, an aging landmark in comparison to the field, is a reminder of days gone by in the countryside.  Growing up in rural Appalachia, it seemed there were enough churches to individually accommodate each person who lived there.  The juxtaposition of the dilapidated church and the lush, green field seems to make a statement about man and religion.  Though we build churches as a symbol of a higher being and eternal life, the buildings themselves are anything but eternal.  The life surrounding this church is what holds it up, the luscious hill steadying the weak foundation.  I see this as a statement about religion in general – the foundation of a religious building exists not within its walls, but in the life which occupies the area within and around it.

Besides the theme of religion, Sabbath captures a stereotypical vision of Appalachia.  The cow standing an equal distance from a barn and a church with no paved road or parking lot anywhere in sight.  After religion, southerners worship farming, a common way of life for the people of rural America.

The painting is entirely bright, except for the lone cow in the foreground.  To someone unfamiliar with rural life, this may be interpreted negatively, the cow viewed as a blemish on the beauty of the landscape.  A viewer more familiar with rural life, however, may see the black cow as an enhancement to the landscape.  Farming is not a lifestyle that affords luxuries; it is comprised of good days and bad days.  Farmers learn to appreciate the bad days, the difficult growing seasons, and the unpredictability of nature.  Just as the dark coloration of the cow strengthens this landscape, the hardships of farming make the rewards even sweeter.

Whether you grew up in rural America, there is some element of nostalgia in this painting with which you can relate.  The colors are reminiscent of a long summer day, the kind where you played outside on your tire swing as a child, when your only concern was when to come inside for supper.  The simplicity of the painting reminds the viewer of a simpler time.  Appalachia, the embodiment of simpler times, provides the perfect scene to depict this sentiment.

I looked for a poem to complement the ideas gathered from this painting, but realized that these thoughts are best expressed through visual art.  Paintings allow the viewer more subjectivity – the meaning must be entirely inferred.  I think this interactivity is a reason I was attracted to Kathie Odom’s art in the first place; her paintings balance casual admiration and deeper analysis effortlessly.  Sabbath is just one example of a landscape Odom has captured that tells a unique story to each viewer.

A collection of Kathie Odom’s art will be featured in Shenandoah Volume 66, No. 2 this spring.  To see more, visit her website at http://kathieodom.com/.

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Reflections from a Culture-Shocked American

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by Arlette Hernandez

I had always heard tales about the Promised Land called “college.” Growing up with Cuban immigrant parents, college was little more than a goal I needed to meet so I could earn a degree and break the cycle of poverty. It was not until I got into high school when that changed. All my teachers would sit back in their cushioned office chairs, staring off into the distance, eyes glazing over as they talked about college. About pulling all-nighters and roaming through city streets at two in the morning. Or for some, about meeting their husbands and wives, their partners for the past however many million years. College became a place for adventure, not just a place to get a degree. Despite all these different views, everyone always seemed to arrive at the same order: study abroad if you can.

Now flash-forward to five months ago when I found myself walking around Heathrow International Airport, eyes shifting between my phone screen and the semi-friendly faces scurrying past me as I waited to connect to the Wi-Fi. I had waited for twenty minutes, but my neon purple suitcase never made an appearance on the carousel. After filing a report with British Airways, I was tasked with the mission of transporting myself and my backpack—filled with nothing but a MacBook and a copy of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves—to Bath, a town in the southwest of England, located about an hour and a half (by train) from London. My next three months in the country would be filled with weekend trips, classes on Shakespeare and Chaucer, and an internship at a local bookshop.

My first day on the job was overwhelming. The bookshop may have been small, but every inch was stuffed. Walking through, you would see books scattered shelves and tables, even a cement filled bathtub with books littered on its surface. Yet, the biggest shock came to me when I walked past a shelf curated with some of the staff’s favorite books. As my eyes trailed over the covers, I noticed a familiar title. It was the same book I had brought with me from house—House of Leaves—but the design on the cover was wildly different.

2000 US Pantheon cover           2000 UK Doubleday cover

England is close enough to the US, that the culture shock doesn’t grab you immediately. Instead, it builds up slowly like the suspense in a good thriller novel. I expected the culture shock; I expect all the differences. But for some reason, it never occurred to me that I’d spot those differences in something as simple as a book cover.

As a part of the internship, I had to write a 30-page research paper inspired by my experiences. I followed this theme of book cover designs, mixing it with my own interest in divisions between genre and “literary” fiction. Really, I wanted to demonstrate that books are not neutral objects. Rather, book covers are incredibly meaningful. They are surfaces constructed by marketing strategies, aimed or targeted at certain groups. Nevertheless, I find the differences between covers in the US and UK fascinating.

Here’s another example:

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

2015 UK Hodder &                 2015 US Harper Voyager                           Stroughton cover                                                       cover

The difference is pretty striking, right? When I look at the UK cover, I think “sophistication.” It looks like something that would be read by my forty-year-old neighbor who works at a private school twenty minutes away. It’s radically different from the US cover.

The UK cover shows the silhouette of a girl standing atop a grassy hill, in front of a nighttime sky. It looks like we start on the ground, on earth, but presumably end up somewhere in a faraway galaxy. The image of the sky takes of the majority of the cover’s space, and the girl’s body covers perhaps a sixth of the area. She seems to be lost in the stars. While the space theme on the UK cover is realistic, the US cover appears cartoonish in comparison. The US cover features a black background with bold and blocky green letters coated in a gradient theme. Surrounding the letters is an image of a moon and a spaceship. I immediately stereotyped this novel as sci-fi. The spaceship, the lettering, they all scream Star Wars and Star Trek. We look at the cover and think adventure and plot, not “what is the meaning of life?”

You can look at these differences in a few different ways. In terms of age, I get the sense that the UK cover is trying to appeal to an older audience. Because of the contrast between the girl’s body and the stars, the cover suggests that the novel is concerned with man’s search for meaning, something that would likely be of more concern to an older audience. Yet, the US cover, knee-deep in genre tropes, would probably appeal toward a younger audience that cares more about story than commentary. The issue of genre v. literary fiction also plays a role. Traditionally, sci-fi is seen as lowbrow literature, or genre fiction, so a cover that makes direct appeals toward that genre is also targeting its readership. Meanwhile, the UK cover, which evokes some heavy existential questions, targets a more literary crowd.

Sometimes the differences between covers speak more to the author or the novel’s reputation.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

2007 UK Vintage cover             2007 US Vintage cover

When I look at the US cover, it’s like it’s saying, “Yes, this is THE Beloved by THE Toni Morrison. Enough said.” Meanwhile, the UK cover gives a little bit more about the novel’s plot. This is understandable considering the fact that Beloved is a uniquely (African) American novel that is taught in a number of US classrooms. It is undoubtedly a part of the American canon, so a publisher working in 2007—thirty years after the novel was first published—does not have to work quite as hard to sell it.

The differences in cover design make sense. When you change the audience, you also have to change the strategies you use to market a book toward them. Still, I wonder if we can draw any cultural conclusions based on these differences. Does the US prefer more concrete imagery and the UK something more abstract? In the case of Chambers’ novel, does the cover more clearly evoke the sci-fi genre because science fiction novels are more popular in the US than in the UK? I have no idea, but it’s questions like these that keep me up at night.

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Defining Poetry: Anne Sexton’s “Transformations”

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by Laurel Myers

I must admit before getting into this essay that I had never read a full book of poetry before university. Like my fellow classmate, Hannah Denham, I picked up Leaves of Grass with the intention to read every page. Holding a book of poetry in and of itself felt extremely scholarly and, dare I say it, snooty, that I worried the entire time I had the book people would think I was pretentious. Only a couple pages in, I got lost in the metaphors and otherworldliness of Whitman’s verse. I felt as if I had failed the literary world by not understanding the twists and convolutions of language. Because of this, I never attempted another book of poetry and only read the infamously famous poems passed out by my English teachers and wrote half-hearted stanzas about my trip to Cambodia or how much I love clouds. (I really love clouds.) In those moments of putting words on notebook paper and forcing out iambic pentameter and choosing rhymes from nowhere, poetry was just another homework assignment, a nuisance keeping me from the stacks of science fiction and fantasy novels that said what they meant and meant what they said. At the time, I simply did not understand the purpose of poetry.

That is, until I read Anne Sexton’s Transformations.

When I start a book, I read the foreword (if there is one) and then the last page first. I have received confused stares, angry outbursts, and sheer exasperation for this unconventional practice, which is understandable, but I am set in my ways. Beginning Transformations in this fashion prepared me for the dark humor and surprising intimacy of Sexton’s writing. I was delighted that Kurt Vonnegut Jr. had written the foreword, knowing that if my favorite satirist liked this book enough to write about it, I was in for something good. What struck me in his couple of pages was not something he said, but rather a quote from a friend: “I asked a poet friend one time what it was that poets did, and he thought awhile and then he told me, ‘They extend the language.’” This response partially answered my question of why someone would want to rewrite the Grimm fairy tales. We have the originals, we were read them at bedtime before slipping into dreams, and Disney has animated its fair share. However, there is always more to a story when an author as astonishing and introspective as Anne Sexton reimagines them while still staying true to the earliest versions of the tales. The forward, then, extended my expectations.

The last stanza of the last poem of her collection deserves the coveted spot, because the words linger long after the book is closed. They are the last impression, but just as important (if not more) as the first. Sexton ends “Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)” with these lines:

     What voyage this, little girl?

     This coming out of prison?

     God help—

     This life after death? 

After reading this, I knew an entire journey occurs, but was it through all of the poems or just this one? Is this what the transformation is about? Do the characters go on physical journeys or is the book itself a journey? Why were there so many questions at the end? Does Anne Sexton not even know how the story is supposed to end? Why did I have to read the end first again?

Questions make you look for their answers, and in poetry, the answers are usually found in the patterns. Or are they found when the pattern is broken? Professor Wheeler, who teaches Transformations in her class about speculative fiction in poetry, would propose that poetry is patterned language, and therefore both the existence of a pattern and then deliberately ignoring the pattern are goldmines for analysis. Reading any type of work for the purpose of writing a paper on it changes how you approach the text, and this is more than true when close reading and annotating a poem. Close reading can sometimes make me see the trees for the forest. I get stuck on a color that keeps popping up or the number of times a name appears in one poem. This can cause you to wonder if this was the reason for poetry, to write in the margins and circle motifs and draw arrows connecting ideas or images. Thankfully, discussing my findings during class and listening to my classmates helped me understand why the patterns that stood out to me were important in the big picture and teased the underlying meanings to the surface.

While reading Transformations, you do not have to look very hard to see that metaphors are everywhere. Sexton’s predilection for metaphors extends throughout the book, diving into her dark humor and curiously personal perspectives. Her use of this literary device causes the world of fairy tales and World War II to collide. Her lush comparisons sculpted scenes full of obsession and bizarrerie while constantly juxtaposing characters with delicious food and nature’s foliage. Because Sexton wrote this collection before my time, she also forced me to look up references to Thorazine, Limoges, and the Bobbsey Twins.

But poems are more than structure and what rhetorical devices are used. They are a conversation, an observation, a call for empathy. They are statements about something, be it political, religious, or simply what it means to be human. Poems are examinations of ourselves and of our world, of desires and losses. As Allison Curseen, a visiting professor, put forth with conviction, “Poetry is bodies talking.” Poetry is extended language, is patterned language, is all of these cursory definitions. But Anne Sexton’s poetry transcends all of these descriptions and stands as a stoic and stark reminder that the world may be a messy place, but you can make something worthwhile out of it. You may not get a happy ending—in fact, your ending may by full of question marks—but you are fully capable of creating a fairy tale journey along the way.

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