Book Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

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By Caitlyn Ward, contributor to the Underground

Clay Jannon, hit with the hard times of the recession, has been shuffled away from his life as a San Francisco corporate drone and has been plopped right down into the tall and daunting aisles of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Working the night shift, Clay soon discovers that this strange and dusty store is more curious than he could ever have imagined. The customers are few and far between, and while there are some random passers-by, there is also a small community that frequents the store often. These eccentric customers borrow from a mysterious, and quite tall, section of the store, habitually checking out large and strange volumes that Clay has been warned not to read. As it becomes more evident that these regulars belong to some strange kind of book club, Clay’s interest in these bizarre volumes grows. Succumbing to his suspicions, Clay engineers an analysis of the bookstore and the behavior of its clientele. With the help of his romantic interest, a data analyst for Google, his roommate, a special effects artist, and his best friend, a successful designer of a “boob-simulation software,” Clay sets out on a quest to discover the secrets that lie far beyond this bookstore’s walls.

In a world where the book is threatened by advancements in technology, the author, Robin Sloan, takes on the intersection between old and new media. Sloan crafts a warm and enjoyable novel, while also raising questions about the power that books and technology contain in today’s society. He does this by bringing these issues to attention, but never pushes these thoughts rudely to the head at the expense of the story. Sloan creates a quirky constellation of characters, such as Clay Jannon and Mr. Penumbra himself, as they work together to solve the 500-year-old puzzle that lies within these peculiar texts. The many references to technology places the novel firmly in the present day. Although Clay and his friends encounter setbacks, they live in a world that provides the answers in one simple Google search. Sloan seamlessly marries these new ideas of technology with old-school paper and ink and the cleverness of it all makes the story hard to put down. By creating a novel that is simultaneously a love letter to books, a meditation on technology and its limits, a mysterious adventure, and a requiem, Sloan is able to tackle the cohabitation of old and new media in today’s world. Rendered with irresistible language, interesting characters, and dazzling wit, Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore creates an intriguing world in which you have to enter, and will not want to leave.

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Event Review: Gothic and Horror Fiction Open Mic Night

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Hannah Cantafio reads at the Gothic & Horror Open Mic Night.

by Taylor Spies, contributor to the Underground

The Gamma Psi Chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, the National honor society for students majoring in English, held a Gothic and Horror Fiction Open Mic Night on the third floor of Arts and Letters Hall on Monday, October 30th at 6pm. The event was small, but the intimate environment was perfect for ghost stories.

Chapter President Bintou Sy began by greeting those that had gathered and introducing Associate Professor and Director of the Undergraduate Program, Jennifer Conary. Conary gave an overview of the origins of the gothic novel and how we interpret the genre today. It was easy to tell that Conary was passionate about her topic, and her warm voice invited the audience to become intrigued by the gothic, stating, “Gothic novels offer physical manifestations of psychological horrors or fears.”

The first reader, Hannah Cantafio, read a short story from the novel Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk, published in 2005. “Dog Years” follows a rich and mysterious wheelchair-bound man. Her words came quick and clear, painting the picture the author created.

The next reader was Assistant Director of Graduate Programs, Janet L. Hickey. Hickey read from The Book of Irish Weirdness by Mairtin O’Griofa, published in 1997. The book showcases short stories by well-known authors. Hickey read “The Judge’s House” by Bram Stoker. This was quite a step back in time as the story was originally published in 1891. However, the story had gotten no less eerie with age, and, followed a student renting out a house rumored to be haunted.

Assistant Professor Bill Johnson González read the next piece, a chapter from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, published in 1984, titled “Geraldo No Last Name.” This piece varied strikingly from the traditional Gothic. González expressed his attempt to find a piece of gothic writing by someone with a Latino or Hispanic background.

Associate Professor and Chair Michele Morano gave the final reading. She read excerpts from a short story by William Faulkner, published in 1930, titled “A Rose for Emily.” This story follows an eccentric lady whose behavior grows increasingly odd as she ages. She never marries, refuses to pay taxes, and dies in the same old house she was born in. It isn’t until after she has been buried that her house is investigated and the truth about her past comes out. The story’s shocking conclusion was the perfect ending to the night. The stories read drew the audience in. One became aware of Halloween’s approach, the dead leaves swirling outside, and the quickly growing darkness.

Event Review: Planet of Microbes with Ted Anton

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by Albora Memushi, contributor to the Underground

Ted Anton’s latest book release, Planet of Microbes: the Perils and Potential of Earth’s Essential Life Forms, was hosted in the Arts & Letters building at six in the evening, on Thursday, Oct 26. The lecture hall was filled with students and faculty.  Rebecca Johns-Trissler presented Anton in a brief bio. Anton’s previous publications include The Longevity Seekers (University of Chicago Press, 2013), and Bold Science: Seven Scientists Who Are Changing Our World  (W.H. Freeman, 2000, Paperback: 2001). His book Eros, Magic and the Murder of Professor Culianu (Northwestern University Press: 1996) won the Carl Sandburg Award and was a finalist for a Book Award from the Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Music was heard from backstage as Anton walked in playing the trumpet. The audience applauded frantically. Dressed in a blue t-shirt and blue khakis, Anton smiled as he played. He thanked the students and his colleagues for helping him shape the book. Anton had prepared a PowerPoint, and he took the audience through an hour-long presentation about his research.

He spoke about the ways our lives might depend on microbes. “The same chemicals that can kill us can also save us. Most of our antibiotics come from microbes,” said Anton.

“How many microbes are on earth?” he asked the crowd. Someone shouted, “Can you give us multiple choices?” As some guessed the answer, Anton said, “There are actually 10 to the 30th power, which is more than the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy; if you line them up they would extend from earth to the sun and back two hundred trillion times.”

Anton ended his presentation by reading a snippet of his book. The passage spoke about the NASA conference in Chicago and Anton’s thoughts as an observer, writer, and a scientist as he faced the greatness of life among the fellow L commuters in the downtown district.

Anton completed his presentation by playing the flute and taking questions from the audience.

Upcoming presentations of the book will be hosted at Columbia University, University of Chicago, and others.

Event Review: Career Panel on Editing

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By Caitlyn Ward, contributor to the Underground

On Wednesday, October 18 in Arts and Letters Hall, the English department held a career night featuring a panel of editors. Wendy McClure, senior editor at Albert Whitman and Company, Kate DeVivo, VP at Agate Publishing, and Donna Seaman, editor for Booklist and the recipient of the James Friend Memorial Award for Literary Criticism, shared what it takes to make it in the world of editing and publishing.

Wendy works in children’s publishing, Kate in developmental publishing, and Donna in the world of book reviews; each career requires passion and creativity. Seeing these women talk about the love they have for their jobs reassured me that this was a field in which I want to work, and hearing about their different backgrounds inspired me to think about all the different career paths an English major can take. Each woman spoke highly of the challenges that come with editing and how each day was a small puzzle in making sure that this book, magazine, or textbook goes out into the world to positively impact readers.

Donna spoke about the need to be inventive, critical, and curious when evaluating any piece of literature. The panel also touched upon the importance of dabbling in different areas of publishing. For instance, you might go from working on cookbooks to working on children’s books, and each experience will add to your understanding of the publishing process. After listening to this panel of women, I took away a valuable lesson: have passion. Whether it’s love for an author, a genre of literature, or a project you hope to work on, a love of English is a must. Seeing three publishing professionals so enthusiastic about their work was inspiring and has made my love of literature, as well as my respect for those who work to bring new books and ideas to readers, grow.

Welcome to Autumn Quarter!

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Welcome to Autumn Quarter, everyone! We hope you had a wonderful summer and wish you all the best for this new quarter. Keep checking back throughout the coming weeks for English department news, internship opportunities, calls for submissions, and more. You can also follow The Underground on Facebook and Twitter!