Category Archives: Recommended Reads

Looking for something good to read? Look no further! Here we feature posts by students and faculty that tell you all about the next book that you should pick up. Are you interested in sharing your favorite novel with the rest of us? Email Eva Grouling Snider at esnider@bsu.edu and tell us all about it!

RECOMMENDATION STATION: “TO ALL THE BOYS I’VE LOVED BEFORE” BY JENNY HAN

By: Sophia Lyons 

Last week, Netflix revealed that their original film To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before has become one of their “most viewed original films ever with strong repeat viewing” (Roettgers, 2018). So the movie has taken off, but what about the book it’s based on?

That’s right, there’s a book.

Caution: Spoilers Ahead

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Black Panther: Professors’ Cut

Prof. Emily Rutter teaches African American literature and Prof. Pat Collier teaches film studies in the English Department. We brought them together for a conversation about Black Panther, which, just over a month after its debut, is the seventh highest-grossing film in U.S. history.

 

PC: Hi, Emily! Before we talk about the film itself, I’d like to hear your thoughts about the film as a cultural phenomenon. Black Panther is inspiring a lot of optimism from critics and journalists, who are reading its popularity as a sign (or an engine) of racial attitudes changing for the better. Do you share this optimism at all?

ER: Yes, Black Panther has generated an incredible amount of buzz, particularly in terms of the film’s “for us, by us” ethos. You could say that this film and its popularity are part of a black arts renaissance that has ushered in a stunning wave of black-directed films: Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Denzel Washington’s Fences (an adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play), Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (which won the 2017 Academy Award for Best Picture), and Black Panther Director Ryan Coogler’s own Fruitvale Station and Creed (and this is not an exhaustive list).

Historically, Hollywood is an industry that has not only been dominated by people of European descent, but has also been a key propagator of white-supremacist (and patriarchal, heteronormative, classist, ableist, what have you) ideologies. All of this to say that it’s positive both when white-dominated spaces like Hollywood are made less so, and when people of African descent are able to use the medium of film both to resist whitewashed narratives and to celebrate black pride. Thus, I hope that films like Black Panther, a high-grossing blockbuster which consistently conveys positive images of blackness, will become more common.

Pat, I’m curious as to your thoughts about the choice to represent Wakanda as a monarchy, rather than a democracy. While it was not specified, I also wondered if the implication was that this monarchy was patrilineal. In other words, if this is an Afrocentric film with anti-colonialist commitments, what are your thoughts on representing a king as the hero?

PC: Great question. Overall, I think the movie’s politics are progressive, at times even radical. I love it that racial oppression in the U.S. turns out to be, obliquely, to blame for the challenge to the Wakandan throne that drives the story. The villain Killmonger (played by the awesome Michael B. Jordan) raises the genuinely explosive question of whether it would be right for black people around the world to rise up violently. True, he’s the bad guy, but if his claim had no validity there would be nothing at stake. And the great thing about Black Panther is that, for all the glitzy CGI effects, its engagement in politics is serious. The movie ends (spoiler!) on a much more conciliatory note–Wakanda is now going to become an engine for social change through diplomacy and social programs. (Arch irony in Oakland, California being the beneficiary of foreign aid!)

But I digress. You asked about the creators’ choice to make Wakanda a monarchy, probably a patrilineal one, at that. (Not to take anything away from the female characters played by Lupita N’yongo, Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright, who kick much ass.) Maybe this is one place where Black Panther can’t transcend its Superhero source material. Its otherwise sophisticated sense of political conflict and global history resolves through old Superhero tropes, including lineal politics within royal families (Hello: Star Wars!) and hand-to-hand combat between larger-than-life individuals. Individual heroism and redemptive violence still carry the day.

What’s your take on the politics of the story, Emily? Much has been written, for instance, about the image of a powerful, functional African state at the center of the story.

ER: Right, and that symbolism is significant in terms of pressuring supposedly common sense ideas about the world, both past and present. Via Wakanda, Black Panther offers another way to see and know Africa that is not polluted by Western imperialist notions of civilized vs. primitive. Wakanda has preserved its rich resources–namely, vibranium–by operating under the guise of a “third-world” nation, outsmarting the colonizers by using their own prejudices against them. Taken as a whole, the film encourages viewers to question the ways in which nations (and indeed continents) are categorized and understood.

The film also poses several related questions: What is the most appropriate way to heal the African Diasporic wounds of the past by using the technologies of the present? How does a people threatened by exploitation preserve precious resources without denying them to people in need? We could also view these questions through the lens of art. For example, in beginning and ending the film in the director’s hometown of Oakland, Ryan Coogler might have been self-reflexively considering his own role as a now famous filmmaker. In other words, how will he resist becoming a stooge for, in this case, Disney, while also using his talents and platform to empower those caught in the crosshairs of various forms of structural oppression and violence?

Pat, what kinds of questions does the film raise for you regarding the role that these blockbuster films funded by corporate giants like Disney might play in resisting neo-colonial ways of knowing? Or, if that is too leading (ha ha), what are the other aspects of this film that intrigue you?

PC: Well, your question brings me back to the limits of the genre. I already mentioned that the superhero genre more or less stipulates that the conflict will be resolved by a strong individual through an act of redemptive violence. This is a very capitalist, western, individualist trope: it’s Shane taking down the cattle barons and Gary Cooper cleaning up Hadleyville. It’s also impossible for a film like Black Panther not to be a bit semi-colonial in its own right–serving up exoticized images of distant lands which the viewer gets to enjoy from the safe, commanding view of a (reclining!) theater seat. The power of Hollywood and of Disney to bring you these images is a powerful undercurrent that goes more or less unchallenged, don’t you think?

ER: Yes, that’s true. And, let me also say that for all my of my skepticism about Hollywood and Disney I recognize the importance of fantasies, especially in the form of utopic visions of Africa. In my African American literature class, we are gearing up for a unit about literary representations of Africa, so I’m excited to see the ways in which Black Panther informs our discussions. What about you, Pat? Do you plan to teach this film, or reference it in your film studies courses?

PC: You’re so right about fantasies. Film class for me is about recognizing what kinds of fantasies we’re being offered and how they work. And, sometimes, simply recognizing that they are fantasies. (I’m thinking about rom-coms and how they re-enforce middle-class and heteronormative values, and re-iterate the cultural narrative that pairing off solves all your problems). But, yes, I do think Black Panther would be a great film to teach, precisely because I want students to discern when film fantasies are potentially transformative, or liberating, or productively critical, and when they are re-enforcing harmful beliefs or simply promoting disengagement.

Any final thoughts, Emily?

ER: #wakandaforever

Sometimes, Writers Live ‘In a Lonely Place’

By Anthony Miglieri

There are a whole lot of films, and great films at that, about screenwriting. A few of the best are Barton Fink (1991), written and directed by the Coen Brothers, and Adaptation. (2002), directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman. However, few films I have ever seen are able to paint such a vivid and violent portrait of a screenwriting artist as the under-appreciated noir piece In a Lonely Place (1950), which was directed by Nicolas Ray, screenwritten by Andrew Solt, and adapted by Edmund H. North from a Dorothy B. Hughes story.  

When this film opens, Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (portrayed by Humphrey Bogart) is bitter and frustrated. He hasn’t had a hit in years and his latest assignment is to adapt a popular novel that Dix is sure is trash. Unwilling to read the bestseller himself, he has a celebrity-obsessed young woman relay the plot to him at his home. Soon after she leaves, she turns up dead and Dix strikes up a relationship with a sultry new neighbor who has doubts about his professed innocence in the case. Continue reading

Don’t have time to read the book first? You’re in luck.

By Becky Cooper

Johnny Depp. Daisy Ridley. Michelle Pfeiffer. Judi Dench. Penelope Cruz. Kenneth Branaugh. With a cast like this, you know you’ll want to see Murder on the Orient Express.

But you know it was a book first, right? By the best-selling novelist of all time, Agatha Christie.

They say that the book is always better than the movie, but maybe you don’t have time to read it before November 10? Well, you’re in luck, because this review will give you enough of the plot to understand the movie without spoiling the end.

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Bethany Stayer Recommends "Supernatural"

In this post, English MA student Bethany Stayer recommends something a little off the beaten path as far as “reads” go. She recommends spending cold winter nights watching the television series, Supernatural.

Why should we watch this, Bethany?

If you haven’t already delved into the cultural phenomenon that is Supernatural, the seemingly endless summer hours offer you the perfect chance. Supernatural follows the adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester, two brothers who travel the country hunting demons, spooks, and anything that goes “bump” in the night (or any other time of day really). A perfect mix of horror, humor, supernatural-season-and intertextual elements that draw on myths, folktales, and superstitions from around the world, Supernatural will have you hitting “Keep Watching” again and again. There really is something for everyone here.

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Billi MacTighe Recommends "Bad Feminist" By Roxane Gay

English MA student Billi MacTighe recommends Roxane Gay’s nonfiction collection, Bad Feminist.

Why should we read this, Billi?

“I resisted feminism in my late teens and my twenties because I worried that feminism wouldn’t allow me to be the mess of a woman I knew myself to be” Roxane Gay, “Introduction; Feminism (n.): Plural”.

Roxane Gay’s recent book, Bad Feminist—a collection of essayscontains a sassy vigor reminiscent of grade-school war-stories told in ten-year retrospect; just enough time has passed to make the nostalgia wane into humor, but all of the details are still there, still potent. But the book is more than recollections and reflections, it’s a commentary on Feminism and Feminists, and, as Gay so eloquently puts it, the idea of an “Essential Feminismone true feminism to dominate all of womankind” (and the lack of existence of such an all-encompassing feminist community). Gay gives an insider’s view of what it means to be an outsider. As we follow the catalog of her experiences- tackling being an upper-middle class black woman in academia- we take a journey through cultural shifts and pop culture highlights (or low-lights, depending on where you think Chris Brown and Robin Thicke fall on the musical spectrum).

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Jennifer Grouling Recommends "The Stormlight Archive" by Brandon Sanderson

“Expectation. That is the true soul of art. If you can give a man more than he expects, then he will laud you his entire life. If you can create an air of anticipation and feed it properly, you will succeed.” (Sanderson, Words of Radiance, p. 1077)

the-way-of-kings-by-brandon-sanderson

Brandon Sanderson masters the art of expectation in his series The Stormlight Archive. A planned series of ten books, only the first two are out: The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance. Unlike other fantasy series of their length, these 1000 + page books never feel slow. Even when you have a good idea what’s coming, that sense of expectation and excitement never goes away. Sanderson exceeds expectations with engaging characters, witty dialog, creative world-building, and masterful pacing. It’s a fantasy series you’ll find seriously addictive. I’m already craving re-reading it, and I rarely re-read novels!

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Robert Young Recommends "Timequake" and "Hocus Pocus" by Kurt Vonnegut

Welcome to Summer Reads!

In this segment Ball State English brings you a selection of recommended reads to get you through the long Summer Break.

In this post, English MA student Robert Young recomends two lesser known books, Timequake and Hocus Pocus, by fellow Hoosier Kurt Vonnegut

Why should we read these, Robert?

A younger version of me fell in love with Vonnegut shortly after reading Slaughterhouse Five in high school. That younger version of me proceeded to completely devour as many of his books as possible. I read The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, and even Slapstick (which is not a very good book, by the way). It was a furious summer of reading. Two of the books I devoured that summer that I’d like to highlight here were Hocus Pocus and Timequake. They’re the last two novels he ever wrote, and they might be two of my favorites, and yet I rarely hear people talk about them.

Both of these novels bear the trademark Vonnegut style of frenetic, non-chronological storytelling. I’ve always enjoyed how Vonnegut will spell out the endings of his books early on, and yet still find ways to keep you interested (“It ends like this: ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”). Hocus Pocus and Timequake are no different.Kurt_Vonnegut_1972

Vonnegut has his satire sights set firmly upon the Vietnam War in Hocus Pocus, but the book also has things to say about the majority of American life. Calling it a novel might be a bit of a stretch, as the book is built entirely out of short, mostly paragraph or shorter chunks of text. This is due to the fact that Vonnegut wrote the entire book on a series of scraps of paper (letters, paper bags, etc.), and the novel is presented in this way. This gives the novel a kind of quickness to it. It’s a fast read, and it seems all over the place, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The structure is about the madness of thought, and it’s something that Vonnegut manages to control.

Vonnegut’s always danced on that line between science fiction and traditional literary fiction. Hocus Pocus, however, has little to no sci-fi elements, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of satire here. In fact, this is the one I remember when I think of his most biting satire. He’s got things to say about everything from the military and war to class, being a teacher, and just America in general. Due to the structure of the book being quite disparate, it’s hard to latch onto a concrete plot, but the novel succeeds in filling in the gaps with Vonnegut’s humor and strong voice, which adds to the character.

There’s always an ever present element of autobiography in Vonnegut’s work. It doesn’t take much to notice, but none of his books have more of this aspect than his final novel Timequake. Marketed as a novel, this book really can’t be called that. Or can it? The book goes back and forth between nostalgically reminiscing about various events in Vonnegut’s life and ruminating on a novel he struggled to write called Timequake, wherein the whole world of 2001 is sent back in time to 1991 to relive the entire decade. People are forced to make the exact same choices that they did previously, relive the entire stretch of time, aware, and unable to change. People are forced to relive miserable car crashes and watch their loved ones die all over again. The book digs deep into themes of sadness, depression, and how people cope and move on. It’s not exactly a happy read by the way, but there’s a bittersweet quality to it.

As stated previously, Timequake waxes back and forth between this other novel and what essentially amounts to creative non-fiction—Vonnegut writing of his own life, inserting himself into the novel. The book is split into chapters, but the chapters themselves are very arbitrary, as a chapter break will rarely end a train of thought or mark the end of a scene. Vonnegut’s trademark cynicism is present, but Timequake always struck me as being deep down actually quite sincere. There’s a lot of emotion in the book, especially in the sections where he talks about his sister and brother, and this one more than any of his other books really stuck with me as being quite emotional.

If you’re someone who was a fan of Vonnegut in the past but never tried out his later novels, give them a read; both of these novels feel profoundly different from his earlier work. Alternatively, if you’re someone looking for a few additions to your summer reading list, give them a read! They won’t disappoint. Or maybe they will. Nobody’s perfect.

Emily Jo Scalzo Recommends "Transmetropolitan" by Warren Ellis

In this segment Ball State English brings you a selection of “Recommended Reads” to get you through the long Summer Break.

In this post, assistant professor Emily Jo Scalzo recommends a wild and insanely fun ride perfect for the summer, the graphic novel series Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis.

Why should we read this, Emily?

Some years ago, a graphic novel series, Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis, was recommended to me by transmetroan online friend from the Bahamas (who likes to cosplay the main character). The ten volume series made it into my collection, and has been toted thousands of miles through my last five or so moves. I reread it about once a year and continually find new aspects to appreciate. References to the Vietnam era, major works of literature and film, religion, politics, and our culture as a whole can be seen throughout. Straddling the genres of sci-fi, political thriller, and dystopia, this series toys with our hopes, dreams, fears, and nightmares, proposing a future both fantastic and terrible.

Transmetropolitan revolves around the antics of a very angry journalist named Spider Jerusalem, who would much prefer to be holed up in a mountain cabin with a stock of ammo. The fine print in a book deal, however, has brought him back to what passes for civilization. In Spider’s futuristic world, the City spans much of the East Coast. Humanity has developed fantastic and wonderful advances, as well as, of course, the horrible ones. The humans of Spider’s future have brought back extinct species. They can clone and mold the mind of humans. People who were cryogenically frozen at death with hopes of being reanimated in the future have found their dreams realized. With a protein, the problem of hunger has been solved. Humans can take animal form for a day, and can even permanently alter their genetic code to match an alien species.

And yet, humanity has failed to combat poverty and the foibles of human nature. Slums still exist, ravaged by terrible diseases that are entirely treatable. Reservations have been formed to recreate doomed societies for the viewing pleasure of the populace. The cryo-resurrected Revivals are ridiculed and persecuted for their culture shock. Those adopting alien DNA are dubbed “Transients,” subject to segregation and prejudice. Even though this future society has an abundance of wealth, has solved the energy problem, and has a host of technological and biological wonders, humanity cannot escape itself, especially when it comes to the political landscape.

This is where the Ahabesque anger of Spider comes into play: just as he is forced out of his hermit lifestyle, his America is gearing up for a Presidential election between the incumbent Beast and the challenging Smiler, which promises to sink to depravities difficult to imagine. Or perhaps not so difficult—it is, after all, an election year. Despite his best efforts, Spider is drawn into the election personally, in part due to his previous journalistic endeavors against the Beast, but also because of his investigative findings of this election, leaving him angry, disillusioned, and not afraid to use his stomping boots to make an impression. Or his favorite weapon, the illegal Bowel Disruptor set on prolapse.

As we get closer to November and become more and more fatigued by the election, many of us can perhaps find solace in the shenanigans of Spider Jerusalem. I know I will. I have my own copies at home, but Bracken library also has Transmetropolitan, so feel free to head on over there and check it out, along with the rest of the graphic novel section.