A Descent Into Madness with Edgar Allan Poe

Listen, if you’ve read my previous post, you’re probably thinking to yourself…is Poe the only thing she ever writes about? The answer is, no. Come on though, it’s October! Who better to usher us (“The Fall of the House of Usher” anyone?) through this season than literature’s resident psychopomp, Edgar Allan Poe?

In all seriousness, Poe’s work has captured the imaginations of generations of readers, which made me want to consider why these stories keep us coming back. What is it about Poe’s writing that continues to intrigue and even terrify us?

My answer: meticulously crafted work; that is how. Poe is a master of his art. His words are carefully chosen to render their chosen effect, guiding the reader down whatever dark hallway, or shadowed path he has carved out for them. So, I invite you to examine with me one of Poe’s most famous works, his poem “The Raven,” and appraise exactly how this wordsmith operates.

The Raven

In Poe’s “The Raven,” the unnamed speaker slowly follows his own obsessive preoccupation with death into madness, taking the audience along with him. The speaker is addressing a bird (who may be a figment of his imagination) with philosophical questions regarding the afterlife. The repetition of an automated response from this bird causes the speaker to become emotionally unstable, his own morbid and melancholy brooding leading him to infer meanings from this response which further his distress. 

One of the main devices which Poe uses to achieve this effect is repetition. During the course of the poem, certain words, sounds, and emotions are reiterated in different variations so as to mimic the mania building inside of the speaker. 

The tone of irrational fixation becomes clear in the second stanza of the poem: 

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor, 
Eagerly I wished the morrow; –vainly I had tried to borrow 
From my books surcease of sorrow–sorrow for the lost Lenore–
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore–
Nameless here for evermore. (7-12) 

Poe makes a point to state that it is “bleak December” (7). This information, in addition to the fact that the events are taking place at midnight, alludes to the end of something, a kind of death of the day or year.  The emphasis is again placed on death when the speaker notes that, “each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor” (8). This vivid, and none too subtle, metaphor drives home the melancholy tenor of the speaker’s thoughts. 

It is then stated that this somber mood is because of the loss of a loved one, a beautiful woman named Lenore (11). Within this brief stanza the idea of death is hinted at, or directly addressed, over and over again, leaving no doubt as to the singularity of thought in the speaker. 

This stanza is also an excellent example of the pointed word choices that Poe employs. The author states in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” that he is building atmosphere by “unusual, and some altogether novel effects, arising from an extension of the application of the principles of rhyme and alliteration” (Poe, 743). The stanza is comprised of a quatrain and a couplet;  the final two lines (couplet) rhyme with one another, as well as rhyming with the final line in the quatrain. This produces a musical quality that is emphasized further by the use of internal rhyme within the stanza. 

In the first and second lines the words “remember,” “December,” and “ember” all appear in close proximity (7-8). This is mirrored in the third and fourth lines by the words “morrow,” “borrow,” and “sorrow” (9-10). This sing-song hypnotic quality pulls the reader in, as the speaker himself is being pulled into his obsession. 

By employing the device of repetition in both the tone of the poem, as well as in creative technique, Poe is able to establish an impression of compulsive insanity. The speaker circles around and around the same thought, with each pass becoming more frenzied and unstable. A replication of the anxiety which fills Poe’s speaker is created in the audience by proxy. The reader is subjected to the same unceasing thoughts that the speaker himself experiences. At the end of Poe’s poem, the desired effect is produced, and both the speaker and the reader are exhausted; each being oddly satisfied with an abundance of sorrow and lunacy. 


Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Raven.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

Top 4 Cozy Reads for Fall

As the weather begins to cool down (or so we can hope), there’s nothing better than cozying up with a warm blanket and a heartwarming book that just makes you feel good. These books are light and sweet, and always leave me with that warm & fuzzy feeling. So, settle down, wrap yourself up, and be prepared to stay there for hours.


The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris—Jenny Colgan. The book primarily follows Anna Trent, an Englishwoman who gets sent to work at a chocolate shop in Paris (the most famous chocolate shop in Paris, I might add) after an unpleasant accident at the old chocolate shop she worked in where she lost one of her toes. In Paris, she meets the owner of the shop, Thiery Girrard (Claire’s former lover), and his son, Laurent. The story switches between the past, showing Claire and Thierry’s story, and the present, showing how Anna and Laurent’s unfolds. The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris is both humorous and enchanting, making me want to book a one-way ticket to Paris as soon as I finished it, and the addition of chocolate making and tasting made it even sweeter. Colgan’s writing style makes the heavy stuff feel less so, making this book the perfect “get comfy by the fire” read.


P.S I Still Love YouJenny Han. This is the second book in the Jenny Han’s trilogy, and it is just as magical as the first. Lara Jean Covey is what most would call a hopeless romantic, and she writes letters each time she has intense feelings for someone. This novel follows the aftermath of the first in the series, where Peter and Lara Jean have decided to explore their very real feelings for each other. In this novel, another boy from Lara Jean’s past, John, comes into the picture. She ends up in a battle between her feelings for Peter and her compatibility with John. She leans on her sisters now more than ever, and we get to see their bond grow even more. P.S. I Still Love You is full of the Covey family bond that we grew to love in the first novel and romantic love—making it one of my favorite heartwarming reads.


Love, RosieCecilia Ahern. Also known as Where Rainbows End, this book has everything a feel good book should have. It follows the story of Rosie and Alex who have been best friends pretty much forever. When it comes time to go to University, Alex finds out he is moving from Dublin to Boston. The two plan to go to college there together, but then Rosie gets some life changing news that keeps her from going. The story continues to follow their relationship across the two countries, through all the ups and downs. They can never seem to get their timing right but I feel myself rooting for them the entire time each time I pick up this book. Their story is funny, at times stressful, yet most of all, heartwarming. Ahern’s wonderful novel combines friendship with love the most delightful way, and you can’t help but fall in love with the characters yourself. Love, Rosie is one of the coziest reads, keeping you so immersed you might just finish the whole thing in one sitting.


Everything, EverythingNicola Yoon. This one is a little bit heavier, but I still consider it a good cozy read. Madeline lives with her mother in isolation because she has a rare disease called SCID, which essentially means her immune system is very weak and cannot fight off diseases properly; a common cold could end her life if she is not careful. So, she is home-schooled and never leaves the house. As one would guess, Madeline’s mother is essentially her best friend, and there are no secrets between them. That is, until a new boy, Olly, moves across the street and they begin communicating. The book follows their story as they begin to fall in love; though, they aren’t allowed to touch each other. Everything, Everything was impossible for me to put down, making it a great book to read when you have nothing to do and just want to lay in bed wrapped up in your favorite blanket. It is more bittersweet than just sweet, but it is 100% worth it.

Book Review

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Publisher: Penguin Classics
Genre: Gothic Drama
Pages: 304
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Are we all running from our reflections? Must there always be a great price for being extraordinary? Oscar Wilde paints a painfully clear picture of human nature, its propensity towards sin, and its struggle with conscience in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

A young man in late nineteenth-century London endowed with remarkable beauty sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for eternal youth. In a fit of narcissistic despair, he prays that he may forever remain as beautiful as he has ever been. His portrait—painted by a friend who is infatuated with Gray—bears the marks of his moral deterioration while he stays handsome and appears to be not a day over 21.

Quite the scandal in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray tiptoes around themes of homosexuality and substance abuse, the former being considered an unspeakable sin during that time, even worse than the latter. It was revised and republished in 1891 with a few edges softened to better suit the audience of the time.

Thoughts

It is interesting what Wilde classifies as sin in this Gothic novel. Perhaps in an unconscious effort to concur with the ideals of nineteenth century English society (in spite of his rebellious nature and general disagreement with said ideals), Wilde’s protagonist primes himself for sin by indulging himself in sensual art and music, which are invariably pagan or Eastern. Did Wilde really believe the East and “the Orient” to be godless, or was he merely tired of rebelling and, for once, wanted English society to nod along with him?

Either way, our protagonist (also the antagonist) doesn’t disappoint. Dorian Gray warms up with regular debauchery and, over a course of twenty years, spirals into actual crime. His portrait grows horrific while his person remains aesthetically angelic.

A fascinating read for the most part of it, it is a dramatic novel with only a dash of fantasy but an era-appropriate amount of misogyny. The plot unfurls steadily and tapers towards a gripping climax. The reader is caught among the many facets of the marvelous Dorian Gray, even as they converge and bring him to face the reflection of his soul.

Book Review

“The Purloined Letter” by Edgar Allan Poe
from Edgar Allan Poe: Collected Works,
introduction by A.J. Odasso

Publisher: Canterbury Classics
Genre: Horror Fiction Classics
Publication Date: November 2011
Pages: 724
Format: Leather-Bound Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

The third in Poe’s series of detective stories, “The Purloined Letter” follows the work of amateur detective C. Auguste Dupin. The detective is presented with a case that has otherwise stumped the Parisian police, the theft of an incendiary letter. After hearing the story of the theft, and the methods applied to find it, Dupin makes short work of recovering the letter himself.

The actual recovery takes up only a little of the story. What is important is the extraordinary means by which Dupin was able to solve the mystery: the key being the use of a singular kind of logic. Dupin’s success was achieved in immersing himself in the psychosis of the criminal in order to better understand him. By these means he is able to predict his opponent’s actions. So successful is this line of reasoning, that a deep empathy is unveiled between criminal and detective, an empathy which reveals not only the location of a letter, but also exposes the foundations of that which makes up C. Auguste Dupin.

Thoughts

As we move into spooky season, with the cold hands of fall brushing the backs of our necks, our thoughts turn inwards. The time for reflection and consideration has come. We will explore the landscapes of our own inner selves, shedding and releasing those things which no longer serve us in order to make space for new growth. I can think of no better representative of this somewhat macabre period of personal death and rebirth, than master of morbid himself, Edgar Allan Poe. I would like to focus on what I consider to be the perfect opener to the season of self-reflection, Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.”

“The Purloined Letter” presents a compelling case for the duality of the human soul. Empathy of the variety used by Dupin comes from an understanding born of personal experience. The experience, in this case, does not mean that the detective has engaged in illicit activity. Instead, it implies that his psychological make-up is such that he has subversive impulses. By allowing himself to experience the emotional current of another, recognizing and understanding this person completely, Dupin is also recognizing these qualities within himself. Any allegiance to lawful life is therefore a choice, born out of social and moral awareness, rather than inherent feeling. Dupin could as easily be a notorious criminal as he is a celebrated sleuth.

In this story, Poe’s detective is representative of the duality inherent in all people. A polarity which those of great imagination can access and utilize to transform their own perceptions. This theme feels very relevant to fall’s pensive mood. It speaks to the ideas which we might be examining within ourselves. Who have we been in the past, and who will be in the future?

So, curl up under a warm blanket with a mug of your favorite steamy beverage and submerge yourself into the world of Edgar Allan Poe. A world where nothing is as it seems. Stare into the glass of the double-sided mirror of C. Auguste Dupin. Walk hand in hand with Poe down the shadowed and winding road of an existence somewhere between the light and the dark.   

Book Review

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Publisher: Dutton Books, 2019
Genre: YA Fiction
Pages: 286
Format: Paperback
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Turtles All the Way Down tells the story of Aza “Holmsey” Holmes, a high schooler attempting to solve a mystery while also struggling to co-exist with her mental illness. When fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett goes missing and a hefty reward is offered for information leading to his whereabouts, Aza’s best friend, Daisy, convinces her to investigate. Reuniting with her childhood friend (and Pickett’s son), Davis, in hopes of learning more about the case, Aza soon finds herself enamored with this kindred spirit and a relationship begins to develop.

Amidst the romance and mystery, however, Aza spends a great deal of her time trapped within her own mind. Suffering from severe OCD and anxiety, she lives with a constant fear that she will contract a fatal disease and be overrun by the bacterial colonies breeding beneath her skin. These intrusive thoughts regularly impede her daily life as she grapples with “thought spirals,” in addition to navigating the treacherous waters of friendship, romance, and sleuthing.

Thoughts

Fans of John Green’s other works will feel right at home within the pages of this book, which contains many characters and philosophies that have become classic Green staples. Turtles All the Way Down echoes The Fault in Our Stars in terms of the instant love connection between Davis and Aza, as well as the exploration of the meaning of life through untimely deaths. It is worth mentioning, however, that this is one of Green’s heavier works, as the reader spends the majority of the novel subjected to the intrusive thoughts of the protagonist. Aza spends a large portion of the novel wrestling with irrational fears and trying (and often failing) to fight her compulsions. Despite the discomfort experienced in parts of the novel, this only makes the story being told all the more important, as it provides a glimpse into the often-ignored realities of mental illness. Suffering from OCD himself, Green has remarked that this book is very personal to both himself and his experiences.

One of the most poignant aspects of this novel lies in the way Green alludes to deep, universal themes without explaining them too much. A theme explored both throughout the book and throughout Green’s writing is realizing and accepting that some things aren’t meant to be fully understood. Readers can take as much away from this book as they wish, at both a surface level and with deeper analysis of symbols and motifs.

At its core, Turtles All the Way Down sends a hopeful message, while still managing to stay true to the narrative of mental illness. Despite the sometimes darker aspects of the novel as Aza sometimes fails to grapple with her own mind, she continues to ceaselessly press on and chooses to believe that we have more control over our lives than we might believe. Turtles All the Way Down is the perfect read for those who wonder about our smallness, our vastness, and the integration of our seemingly-irreconcilable selves. The underlying sense of hope serves to soothe anxious minds and remind us that “your now is not your forever.”

Literary Event: “Write Here, Write Now”

Are you a writer looking to take your craft to the next level? Then look no further than “Write Here, Write Now,” a pop-up writing workshop hosted on the fourth Monday of every month from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Changing Hands Phoenix.

This month, acclaimed author Tom Leveen will be hosting a workshop focused on dialogue, making your characters stand out, as well as first and third person narration. For more information, click here

Location: Changing Hands Phoenix, 300 W. Camelback Road

Date: Monday, October 28, 2019

Time: 6–7:30 p.m.

Cost: $8


Book Review

Relief by Execution by Gint Aras

Publisher: Little Bound Books, 8 October 2019
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 94
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Beginning with an illustration of the “deep connection to the dead” felt from the European cobblestone streets, Gint Aras begins his story when he is just about to visit the Concentration Camp Memorial nearest to his former Lithuanian home for the first time, announcing his intention to imagine himself not as a victim but as a perpetrator. Switching to past tense, Aras describes formative moments and impressions in his life, from a childhood in the violent West Chicago suburb Cicero in a physically abusive Lithuanian immigrant family to his time in Europe and then back in America.

Aras charts his progression from one who silently accepts and ignores abuse to one who identifies and confronts this behavior, whether it be the Lithuanian complicity in Nazi atrocities towards Jews during WWII to more broad racism, Anti-Semitism, and physical violence. He then ends the memoir back with his visit to Mauthausen in present tense recognizing a “relief by execution” for both prisoner and guard.

Thoughts

The tense and section changes in Aras’ work were somewhat disorienting for me personally, but his easy, conversational style immediately made me feel as involved in his realizations as he was. Though I have not suffered PTSD or uncovered a family and national history of abuse and atrocity, reading Relief by Execution allowed me to experience the emotions and sensations of these moments along with Aras.

In my admittedly brief experience, I too “sense a deep connection to the dead any time I stand on cobblestones in Europe” (1). Aras’ narrative provides a clear individual perspective on how the aftermath of WWII still affects thought patterns today, suggesting that we may not have left those atrocities as far in the past as we may wish to believe.

Since Aras provides such a personal and approachable take on the complicated conceptions of ethnic identity, race, nationality, and abuse, I would recommend Relief by Execution to anyone (high school age or older) who seeks to understand how our individual identities are affected by our cultural and familial baggage.


Thanks to the publicist at The Next Best Book Blog for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Wendy Webb: The Queen of Northern Gothic

My favorite book is Jane Eyre, my second favorite being Pride and Prejudice—what can I say? I’m a classics lover.

But now, I have a third favorite book, and it’s all thanks to a magnificent new author on the scene: Wendy Webb. And spoiler alert, it’s not a classic that takes place in Regency Era England. I know, I didn’t think I could be swayed either.

But here we are.

Honestly, I am someone who has a very difficult time branching out and trying new authors. But, as with most good things in my life, I can thank my mom for this one. 

I’ve mentioned this before, but I lived on the gorgeous North Shore of Lake Superior in a quaint little city called Duluth. My second summer of living there, my parents came to visit and see what I kept raving about as “the most beautiful place in the whole world.” 

On one of our excursions, we visited the most charming little town of Grand Marais, and if you know my mom, we inevitably ended up at a bookstore. 

Not just any bookstore. A little Cape-Cod-style cottage painted in pastels that sat just a few hundred yards from the shore of the lake. Oh, and there was a donut shop right next door. I guess this is what they mean by location, location, location.

But I digress. 

In the local authors section (the best section!), she stumbled across a writer named Wendy Webb, someone who had made their debut within the last few years. Trusting the bookstore owner’s incessant praise, my mom purchased the first of many Wendy Webb books we would come to own. 

I remember being hesitant when my mom first suggested I read one of her books. See, Wendy Webb is a Northern Gothic writer—and gothic was not really a genre I tended to dive into. Remember my favorite books? But, I decided to give it a shot and cracked open her most recent novel, Daughters of the Lake. She was a local author after all. 

Best. Decision. Ever. 

While I typically think of mystery/gothic novels as being contrived, Webb was inventive and played with the well-loved framework brilliantly. Instead of being overly-predictable and cheesy, Webb created a believable world that left me guessing until the last chapter. Where I expected flat characters with flatter relationships, Webb breathed raw and wonderful life into every character that graced the pages of her novels. 

But fair warning, her ability to bring a story to life also left me with a fear of turning off the lights some nights. In the best way. 

In the end though, what I found so exciting was that each novel took place along the North Shore of Lake Superior, some even in Duluth—though under different names. It was like a world that she created just for me, because I could envision every town and building she spoke of, having been there myself. 

And so, maybe I’m romanticizing an author because she sets her books so beautifully along the shore I love most in the world—but maybe, just maybe, she really is all I say she is. 

I guess it’s up to you to decide. 


For more information about Wendy Webb, click here.

Wendy Webb’s Full Works: The Tale of Halcyon Crane, The Fate of Mercy Alban, The Vanishing, The End of Temperance Dare, Daughters of the Lake

Author Event: ‘Future Tense Fiction Stories of Tomorrow’

Changing Hands Phoenix and the ASU Center of Science and the Imagination (Go, Sun Devils!) are partnering to celebrate the launch of Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow, a new science fiction short story collection. The anthology explores the consequences—good and bad—of change and what tomorrow might bring for humankind. Authors Paolo Bacigalupi and Maureen F. McHugh—two of the contributors in this anthology—will be joining Changing Hands and ASU for the book launch.

Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of The Windup GirlShip Breaker,The Drowned CitiesZombie Baseball BeatdownThe Doubt FactoryThe Water Knife, and Tool of War. His work has won a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and has been nominated for three Nebula Awards and four Hugo Awards.

Maureen F. McHugh is the author of China Mountain Zhang, After the Apocalypse, Nekropolis, Half the Day Is Night, Mission Child, and Mothers and Other Monsters. She lives, writes, and teaches scriptwriting in Los Angeles, California.

For more information about the event, click here.


Location: Changing Hands, 300 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix

Date: Thursday, October 10 

Time: 7 p.m.