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A Letter to the Books I own, but Haven’t Read

Dear Loyal Shelf-Dwellers,

You know the spiel. It’s always the same, and it doesn’t get any more believable as the years go by. I’m sure it’s pretty easy to lose hope up there, waiting for the sunlight to pass over you each day as the dust collects. But I’m writing to assure you that I am indeed coming back. Next time I come home, I will reach up to your perch, pluck one of you away, dust you off, and dive in. Maybe.

Or maybe I’ll come home with even more friends for the shelf. I’ll find myself wandering through another book store, falsely assured of my capacity for self-control, and I’ll spot a story I can’t seem to resist. As I walk sheepishly to the register, I’ll probably convince myself of the speed at which I’ll start reading this one, the unquenchable vigor with which I will devour the pages. It will seem like a good idea. But sometime in between the car ride home, during which I will re-read the first paragraph seven times to make sure I “get it,” and the hour I set aside to get at least the first chapter done, when I will suddenly remember all of the things I’ve been putting off, I’ll get distracted again. I’ll forget the way I felt when I held the book in my hands for the first time, the weight of it. I’ll forget the enticing question on the back that got me hooked, that gave me shivers and made me want to flip to the end. I’ll forget, just like I’ve forgotten each and every one of you.

Having a shelf of books that I’ve barely touched doesn’t make me entirely sad. I’m not sure why, because I don’t even know of the adventures and wonders and feelings you have to share with me, but I like having you around. It reminds me that, at one point, I needed your story. At least for a little while, I wanted to live in your world, to meet your characters, to spend time with you. I think I still do. You are each a reflection of where I’ve wanted to be at some point in time, of stories I’ve chosen to know. You are reflections of whom I’ve wanted to be.

I don’t know when I’ll read you. My plans to shut everything else out and focus will be blurred and shoved aside by deadlines. I don’t know if the entire month of reading and rediscovering bliss that I picture in the distant future can even exist in my reality. But I think it’s a good sign that I’m still picturing it.

Hang in there,

   Love,

            Claire

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Sherlock Holmes: The Victorian Detective

Nearly everyone who has ever consumed any form of media has been exposed to the two beloved brainchildren of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The original dynamic duo of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson is one of the most popular fictional conceptions in the history of literature. To understand the success of these treasured stories, we first must understand the man behind them and his encroachment into the realm of authorship.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859 in Edinburgh. Prior to his writing endeavors, Conan Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School as well as botany at the Royal Botanic Garden. It was during these aforementioned studies that he began to pen his first literary works. Though most are familiar with Conan Doyle exclusively through his Sherlockian literature, he avidly wrote fantasy and science fiction pertaining to his character “Professor Challenge” who is essentially the antitheses of Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle saw a modicum of success in regard to publication, having his academic piece “Gelsemium as a Poison” published in The British Medical Journal as well as his narrative piece “The Mystery of Sasassa Valley” published in Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal. That being said, Arthur Conan Doyle was not the writer as we know him until drafting A Study in Scarlet, the first novel in which the notorious Sherlock Holmes appeared. The search for a willing publisher was not easy, but Conan Doyle’s first work was eventually accepted by Ward Lock & Co in 1886. The first installment in the Sherlockian saga was well received and laid the groundwork for the next four novels, as well as over fifty short stories about the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.

The first appearance of Holmes and Watson, and my personal favorite novel in the series, A Study in Scarlet found the duo investigating the death of Enoch Drebber. More than just the captivating plot, A Study in Scarlet establishes the dynamic between Holmes and Watson. The reader sees Watson’s awe of Holmes skills in deduction and his seemingly endless knowledge of most things. In my opinion, the most captivating aspect of this novel is Conan Doyle’s description of Holmes himself. Assuming A Study in Scarlet is the reader’s first foray into the world of Sherlockian literature, Conan Doyle goes to great lengths to establish who Holmes is by providing snip-its into his mind. This is best expressed in the exposition of the novel when, upon their first meeting, Holmes analyzes and describes Watson without error. At this moment, the reader and Watson share a common reaction of complete bafflement.

“My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t know.”

~ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes

Aside from the entrancing character interactions, Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing style is unique and wildly entertaining. Watson acts as Holmes’ chronicler, publishing write-ups of their cases, and many chapters throughout the four novels are framed as exact extracts from Watson’s diary, but this is not the only format in which Conan Doyle details their cases. All four novels are a tasteful blend of Watson’s reports and the traditional third person limited perspective, but the writing style of Conan Doyle would mean nothing if it wasn’t applied to such an immersive story. From A Study in Scarlet to the seeming conclusion in Valley of Fear, the reader is submerged in the world of Victorian London. The entirety of their adventures feels comparable to that of a rainy and smog filled day, but this is delivered in a wildly entertaining way.

It would not be a generalization to say that most people, especially those interested in the world of literature, have heard of or experienced the story of Sherlock Holmes in some way. Through this series of novels and short stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the framework for mystery/detective novels. Many avid readers and writers of mystery likely owe a large amount of inspiration to the adventures of Holmes and Watson. Personally, the Sherlock Holmes series was the first series that I legitimately got into. Many of my friends were enthralled with the Harry Potter or Hunger Games series, and out of the desire for something different, I found Sherlock Holmes. I vividly remember being on vacation in Traverse City, Michigan, where I found the Penguin Deluxe Edition of Sherlock Holmes: The Novels. I spent the rest of that vacation furiously reading A Study in Scarlet and was hooked from that point on.

To anyone looking for a fantastic series that they can lose themselves in, I wouldn’t recommend anything but the collection Sherlockian narratives. They’re far more than just mystery, they’re the conception of two of the most popular fictional characters as well as the blueprint for contemporary mystery literature.

By: Jake Largen, Red Cedar Review Staff 

Playing by the Numbers: Readers Begin to View Reading Goals in a Negative Light

In 2016, I set a GoodReads reading goal of 60 books. In 2017, I thought 52 would be more reasonable. This year I chose 12.

For those who are unaware of the annual reading challenge I’m referring to, the social media platform “GoodReads” allows its users to participate in an online reading challenge every year. Users set their own goal of how many books they’ll read in the year based on what they believe they can accomplish (or, more realistically, what they’re hoping they will).

While I think that this reading challenge is a great way for readers to encourage themselves to read more, I’ve also seen it evolve into an over-competitive reading environment. This is a concept similar to public new years resolutions: If we were to put all of our new years resolutions online for our friends and family to see, would we be more motivated to accomplish those goals? Or would our actions become a compulsory show for our social media following?

In addition to this, the platform hosts countless book reviews, recommendations and discussions, possibly leaving the GoodReads user conflicted on what to read next.

While my opinion stems from my own observations, I’ve found that others in the book community seem to be on board. Members of “Booktube,” a YouTube community centered around books, specifically have voiced their concerns over this issue, many beginning at the start of 2017. In her video titled “2017 Reading Goals | Why I’m not doing a GoodReads Challenge,” booktuber Mrs Hembry Reads says “I felt that having the GoodReads challenge… I felt this pressure. Completely unnecessary pressure.“ The video received 86 likes and 0 dislikes.

Mrs Hembry Reads later makes a comment about how she isn’t attacking GoodReads as a platform, which I stand by.  The only issue with the reading challenge is the possible strain that readers put on themselves to adamantly stick to an optimistic reading goal.

When reading becomes a chore people, stop reading. Don’t let that be you in 2018.

Mrs Hembry Reads’ video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iuqrYdfM_I

By: Jordan Sickon, Red Cedar Review Staff

Struggles of an Aspiring Writer

I have known that writing was a constant interest of mines since as far back as middle school. I started writing my first book when I was in high school (and then I realized how crappy it was and chucked it aside). I even have some of my old writing projects stored in google docs so that I can look back on them and see how weird and legitimately awful my work was when I was sixteen-years-old, still figuring life out, and naïve about the future—what I wanted to study in college, would anyone buy my work, and so on and so forth. Now that I am twenty-one and about to graduate in a year I am constantly feeling anxiety about what happens once that degree is in my hands and the professional world hits me like nobody’s business because right now my writing is more focused, more serious, and I legitimately want to make a career out of writing, editing, and publishing. I know what I want my future to be compared to ten years ago but I still have all of those same feelings from before. When I sit down in front of my laptop and start clicking away at the keyboard I have a million little thoughts in my head that pound away at each other until I go crazy from the back-and-forth.

            “Is my lead heroine inspiring or relatable? Maybe I will make her a black lead!”

            You know what, nobody is going to care. I should just quit now!

            “Is my writing compelling enough? She and this guy should be saying this to each other—Yes! Perfect!”

            Now that I think about it…this line sucks!

            “Is anybody going to actually buy this? Will I ever be like Rick Roirdon, Octavia Butler, or Cassandra Clare? I just have to have faith that my work will stick out.”

            I really don’t want to be a starving artist. Please God, don’t let me fail!

And when all of these thoughts are in my head it’s hard to concentrate on writing the way I want (and I am a perfectionist by nature so believe me when I tell you the struggle is real.) And then the big thought is always lingering in the back of my mind: I am a black girl trying to make it in the YA fiction and fantasy business. Do I belong here! Will anyone enjoy reading about the fantasy world of a black girl. I see adaptations for all of these white writers but has Octavia Butler ever had any of her work made into a movie that is a part of our cultural reference? I am so scared all of the time that I will never be good enough and I know that I am not alone in that but sometimes I still feel it. I want to succeed in the goals I have set for myself but I always revert back to this point and I really want to know if anyone else has felt like this when trying to make it as a writer?

And then there is the whole other can of worms…finding time to read and write while I am a anxious student and work a part-time job.

Being the perfectionist I am, succeeding in school and earning my money is like an instinct and as much as I fight to find time to write and read one of the many books untouched on my shelf (and I have two shelves of untouched books so far) I always prioritize my academics and earning my way. I wonder if anyone in my boat finds it hard to do this too.

All of my struggles and all of my fears get louder and heavier as I actually sit down and write because I know that there is always a chance that someone will not connect with what I put to paper and that is the most terrifying thing of all. Failure is the thing that I always fear will come true and is the thing that I struggle the most with overcoming.

By: Nayirah Muhammad, Red Cedar Review Staff

 

 

The Handmaid’s Tale: 1985 Book vs. 2017 TV Show

Like many book lovers, I get eager to see novels I’ve enjoyed adapted into films or TV shows, even if my response is almost always the infamous “the book was better.” So naturally, after reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood in my English class, I raced to sign up for my free month’s trial of Hulu (who even has Hulu anyway?) and begin watching the 2017 TV series of the same name. While I expected the show to leave out key elements and add in completely unnecessary characters and subplots as I’ve seen many such adaptations do, I was pleasantly surprised with how artfully the novel was translated to the small screen, and even found myself binge-watching three or four episodes of the ten-part series in one sitting.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985 book) takes place in the dystopian society of Gilead and follows the story of Offred, one of many women forced to bear children for the barren wives of government officials. The book details Offred’s life both before and after becoming a handmaid, as well as examines the impacts this lifestyle and the oppressive government have on her physically and emotionally.

For the most part, the TV show stays true to the storyline of Atwood’s novel. In fact, I would argue it adds even more to the story than it takes out, but nothing that is added is without purpose. Many of the new and reimagined scenes offer insight into the pasts of characters like Serena Joy or Nick that we don’t get in the novel told from Offred’s perspective, which helps bring these characters to the forefront of the story. The show also delves further into the formation of Gilead, which makes Atwood’s already imaginative world even more fascinating, as well as scarily similar to current events taking place in the U.S. and around the world.

What I enjoyed most about the show was that it turned the character of Offred into a total badass. Not that her small, unseen ways of rebelling in the novel aren’t noteworthy, but in the TV show she assumes a much larger role as a self-proclaimed rebel, daring to take many more risks and not being afraid to speak out when she knows something is wrong. I also appreciated the way the show was shot, with many slow-motion sequences and close-ups that complement the intricacies found within the novel’s prose.

My only concern for the series is the plan for a second season. I get nervous when adaptations expand outside of the existing written material because I don’t want them to change my perception of the author’s work too profoundly. Yet other shows, such as Game of Thrones, have deviated from their original materials with much success, so I am hopeful that doing so with The Handmaid’s Tale will allow for even further exploration into Offred and her world without completely jumping the shark. Plus, Atwood will help write the second season, which gives me faith that the series will head in a direction not only true to her vision, but to the story as it exists currently.

Due to explicit language and graphic scenes present throughout, I would definitely recommend the show to older, more mature audiences. But if you’re looking for something relevant, action-packed, moving, and fiercely dramatic, The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely for you. So go sign up for your free month of Hulu and you’ll be hooked on your next binge-session in no time, just as I was. But read the book first.

By Grace Beltowski, Reader and PR Team

The Magic of Shirley Jackson

You’ve probably all read “The Lottery”—you know, the short story about the eerie small town whose custom is an annual lottery in which one unlucky person gets stoned to death by their neighbors? It’s creepy, right? That story, believe it or not, is by the incomparable Shirley Jackson. Sadly though, it’s really the only work of hers that is well-known, which I firmly believe is a travesty; it’s unacceptable.

It is my goal to tell everyone I meet about Shirley Jackson, the amazing woman who wrote prolifically throughout her lifetime. She wrote from the 1940s until her death in 1965. Jackson was married to a jerk of a man—Stanley Edgar Hyman—who was a teacher at Bennington College (and who cheated on his amazing wife more than once). Despite the social climate of Jackson’s time, she managed to write some truly literary works, which is remarkable even now when writing in the horror genre. Her most famous novel is The Haunting of Hill House, which is regarded as one of the best ghost stories ever written. What amazes me most about Jackson is her ability to take something like a ghost story and transform it into an intense, psychological, and downright terrifying tale. The worlds she creates are unlike any other (I find reading her work on a blustery fall day is pure heaven).

So, I’d read “The Lottery” a few times, and then I read The Haunting of Hill House, and I was entranced. I ran to my favorite bookstore and purchased another collection of stories and another novel. I still can’t decide what Jackson work I love most. . .

If you want to read an amazing novel told by perhaps one of the most unreliable narrators you’ll ever encounter, pick up We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Merricat is singular, she is odd, she is hilarious, she is creepy. Her relationships with her family members are perplexing, and by the end of the book you’ll ask yourself, “What just happened?” (In the best way, of course).

If you want to read short stories (which I suggest you do; they’re perfect reading for busy semesters when all you have time for is a few pages here and there), go get any collection of Jackson’s stories. They’re terrifying, in a quiet way. You won’t find blood and gore like a twenty-first century blockbuster horror flick, and you won’t find over-the-top thrills either; what you will find is an almost unbearable suspense that quietly builds page after page and characters who make you uncomfortable and horribly interested. (I’d recommend you check out “Charles,” “The Daemon Lover,” and “Like Mother Used to Make”)

As a writer and a reader, I look to Shirley Jackson as a master of her craft. As a woman, I look to Shirley Jackson as a role model for enduring her controlling husband and oppressive society—not only enduring, but also managing to create worlds and characters and plots that are still read today. More people need to be aware of Shirley Jackson. She should be a part of our canon, our teachers should teach more of her stories (though I am thankful they teach one at all), and everyone should trust me—Shirley Jackson is magical.

By: Carrie Dudewicz

Spiraling Through “Turtles All the Way Down”

“The first time I realized I might be fictional,” these are the first words of John Green’s new novel Turtles All the Way Down. These words ring true, as Azel is, in fact, fictional. What is special about this novel is that her experiences are not so fictional for some readers. Azel suffers from OCD, and with his newest novel, Green has managed to convey at least some of the struggles that plague those coexisting with invasive thoughts.

TATWD not only captures the experiences of those suffering from OCD, but the struggles of growing up, dealing with heartbreak, family, and friends. Green’s writing in this novel is just like the spirals Azel thinks about, “if you follow it inward….it just keeps tightening.” From the start of this novel, it grips you and never lets go. The stream of thought presented in these pages, feel like one’s own, and you may find yourself feeling an uncomfortable amount of empathy for the characters within them.

One such moment is when Azel’s thoughts consume her, and she pleads to be set free, “Please let me go. I’ll do anything. I’ll stand down. You can have this body. I don’t want it anymore.” This passage is almost painful to read, as it enthralls you to the point that what you are reading feels invasive to you as well. Your brain seems to be hijacked, by the invisible demons that are torturing Azel on the pages in front of you. You find yourself begging for both Azel’s freedom and your own.

For a piece of writing to truly make you walk a mile in someone’s shoes is an astounding, and profound feat. Green’s ability to do this showcases his true artistry of the written word. That’s what TATWD is, a piece of art.

As a college student, I found myself relating to the high schoolers of this novel more than adult characters in other stories. There is a perfect blend of action and character development throughout the story. One will not be disappointed by the raw, and honest truths presented within it. I challenge anyone to read this novel, and not find one aspect you emphasize with.

Thoughts From a Four Time NaNoWriMo Failure

For many college students, I think, November is a particularly wretched month: walks across campus in cold drizzle, flus and watery eyes, cumulative exams and weighty group projects, and, if you’re like me, you’ve probably used up all of your excused absences and have created a situation in which you need to ace all of your last assignments and exams in order to maintain a quasi-reasonable GPA. On top of this, too, you might be working twenty hours a week at Chick-Fil-A, or organizing fundraisers for the Horticulture Club, or trying to get more than five hours of sleep per night. You know what you should do this month, though? Write 1,667 words per day with the end goal of producing a 50,000-word novel in four weeks.

Wait, what?

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a baffling cultural phenomenon which sees a huge number of participants dump confused, hectic narratives into Google docs against a 50,000-word goal and a November 30th deadline. If both of these are met, the participant will have “won” NaNoWriMo, and can enter December as an Author of a Novel. All easier said than done, and, even when done, what’s the real payoff? The feeling of being able to introduce oneself as a writer at holiday mixers, the evidence of this claim being a 50,000-word document collecting virtual dust in some intangible Cloud? Hardly any NaNoWriMo manuscripts (read: unedited garbage narratives) become anything more than just… justification.

Alright, call me bitter. I won’t argue with you. You’ve seen the title of this blog post.

But isn’t there a better way for aspiring writers to hone their craft? If annually one dips her toe into writerly waters, churns out her 50,000 words, and doesn’t write another sentence until the following November, what lasting progress has she made as a writer? If, perhaps, a college student finds the pressures of NaNoWriMo overwhelming, potentially associates the act of creative writing with stress, obligation, exhaustion, frustration—what good does all that do? I’ve only ever attempted NaNoWriMo as a student, every November from my junior year of high school to my sophomore year of college; and I’ve only ever abandoned my writing maybe two weeks and 10,000 words in, always feeling like a failure.

That’s where the troubling language of the whole production factors in—if those participants who’ve reached 50,000 words by November 30th are “winners” of NaNoWriMo, doesn’t that make the rest of us losers? If they’re all Real Writers, now, with their Real Novels—well, maybe I’m being overdramatic, but each of the four times I’ve thrown in the NaNoWriMo towel has been a blow to my confidence. In my nascent yen to claim writing as a factor in my identity, I interpreted NaNoWriMo as a kind of quick scheme toward being able to feel like a writer, even though I hardly ever put the proverbial pencil to the proverbial paper the rest of the year ‘round.

Listen: a novel in a month, even a short novel, is an unrealistic goal for anyone, especially college students. 1,667 words/day for thirty days does not a writer make. Two hundred words every few days for thirty weeks, though? I feel like that’s the kind of lasting progress that a lot of so-inclined students could manage.

One day, a few months ago, I felt like writing and I wrote some. Then I didn’t for a few days, and then I did again. I didn’t feel like writing yesterday, and I’m writing today. And I feel more like a writer now than I did as I suffered and seized over an arbitrary word count and an arbitrary deadline. However, I don’t feel like I’ve “won” writing, and, honestly, I hope that I never feel that way. Let’s all just keep practicing forever, and if we write some dope shit while we’re at it, that’s awesome. But let’s all just be writers at our own pace, yeah? Where it fits in our class schedules, when we’re not sapped from on-demand essays, when we want. Let’s just… write, without worrying about any rules. Let’s just do it, and keep doing it. Let’s do it consistently, and comfortably, and with care—and let’s never be done. (Let’s still call ourselves writers at those holiday mixers, too. Screw it.)

Author: Martha Spall, Red Cedar Review Assistant Managing Editor

Michigan State Lecture Series: Ta-Nehisi Coates

By Katherine Stark

On April 3, Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke at Michigan State. Coates is a renowned journalist, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and an author. He’s written two books, Between the World and Me, and The Beautiful Struggle, and most recently, he’s been writing comics for the Marvel superhero Black Panther. His writing most often centers on the theme of race in America, specifically issues faced by the African American population.

I was introduced to Coates in a class I took last semester through RCAH, where his award-winning essay written for The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations” was an early assigned reading. The article argues that the United States needs to engage in conversation about reparations to make up for the centuries of injustices committed against black people in America. I followed up by reading another class recommendation, Between the World and Me.  This book, written as a letter to his son as he grapples with his place as a young black man in the U.S., was probably the best book I read in the last year—I started marking spots I loved, and by the end my copy was overflowing with little pink tabs.

His writing combines thorough research about the history of race in the U.S. with human interest expertly—he often talks about personal experiences of himself and other individuals who have suffered because of institutional racism in America. His lecture, part of MSU’s World View Lecture Series, was as informational and moving as his written works. Hearing from such a prominent figure in the discussion of race in the U.S. was so important to me. Because the national climate is so contentious right now, his perspective is needed more than ever.

 

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