The fireworks have finally quieted down, but July has just begun to heat up! Whether you are looking for a book to help you forget the hot weather or a book filled with just as many vivid sensations as the summer season is, keep on reading. In this month’s Friday Reads feature, three of our interns recommend dynamic stories about the nightclubs of the Midwest, a boarding school in coastal Rhode Island, and the tangled relationships of a young person’s body and spirits.
Robin Lee Carlson speaks to managing editor Emily Everett about her essay “Reading the Ashes,” which appears in The Common’s fall 2022 issue. Robin talks about the many-year process of observation, illustration, and writing that went into the essay, which explores the cycle of fire and rebirth in Cold Canyon. She also discusses how her work balances the poetic and artistic with the scientific, how sketching and watercolors help her understand the natural world, and how she hopes her book will encourage readers to observe and question ecological change in their local areas.
Interior of a silver Volvo wagon, back door pockets stuffed with Candy Ring wrappers, pencils, and rocks; I am looking in the rear-view mirror or over my right shoulder into the backseat, my left hand on the wheel, right hand on the seat back next to me. Two small boys, both with eyes the exact color as my own, stare back at me, pleading or explaining or demanding or questioning or laughing or crying or sulking or fighting or trying to hide. The car smells vaguely Cheerio-like. No matter the music, the soundtrack is chatter and the rhythmic kicking of a seat back. They also like punching each other’s seat warmer buttons with their feet to be annoying.
When my friends and I left the homeland, my second departure from Kuwait, there were five of us and ten suitcases. I knew exactly what was in each bag, just as I knew the pain and angst of the five travelers heading toward the unknown. The suitcases were packed with clothes, kitchenware, Indian spices, and various items we didn’t think we’d be able to find abroad. I could only bring four books with me from my vast library back home: Al-Mutannabi, in two parts; the collected works of Mahmoud Darwish; and just one of the volumes of The Unique Necklace. These would constitute the entire library I would survive on, for however long I ended up living in estrangement. Once we’d settled into our accommodation in a small house on Norris Drive in Ottawa, I arranged the books on the sleek wooden flooring, the place being still unfurnished. Then I sat back and simply gazed at them.
We cherish ourselves even to the bones which like some mother’s rigid hangers hold us to our lacquered shapes in the smug dialetheia of am and briefly was until we come to our raveled ends everyone just taking up space until space takes us back one washed-out moment at a time like tea leaves steeping in a cup until we’re ready for someone to bow in close and take a quick ceremonial sip then turn the cup wipe clean the rim and hand it carefully to yet another honored guest who mindful of what we might let go to waste will not leave until every drop is drunk.
John Ashbery called me after he died So you can imagine my excitement When in his droll hyper-nasalated Timbre quite undiminished by death He chatted on about the bowls of Pitted cherries provided as snack-food In the upper worlds and of afternoons Climbing trees with Edna Millay to read Comic books with her in the branches. Then his voice dropped two octaves And he spoke solemnly of Jack Benny: ‘You can say funny things or say things Funny but silence was the punchline For Jack Benny.’ And he was gone.
The soapy drench is physics drawn to river toward me, 15 feet away in my flimsy chair. At first its body fans to deliver brims to concrete sinks I had not glimpsed, then narrows to speed unveiling dips and bellies, then courses on to a hole with a remnant pool anchored by a cigar butt. A halt belies its reaches. A lump has pushed the grey drool around the promised lake in delta featherings while another drive has passed beneath my seat to rest in my colossal shadow, clearing its slate of suds. The flow now ponds in the heat and readies its ghost mirror to catch me, gray in noon’s appraisals, the reaper of the day.
Whatever you believe, know this: Teodoro Ramirez’s dog could see into the spirit world. Teddy, as he was called by everyone in barrio La Zavala, never shared this with anyone. Of course, the only people he could have shared this with would have been his co-workers or his tíos and tías, who only came by his house occasionally now that his mother, Josefina, had died, que en paz descanse. He probably could have told la Señora Izquierdo, the nice old lady who lived alone next door and brought him tamales every year when it was close to Christmas. She may not have believed him, but she would have listened.
Teddy believed lots of things his mother, Josefina, had told him and sometimes heard her voice even now that she was gone from this earth, the diabetes she’d had trouble controlling taking her too soon, que en paz descanse. Like if you went outside and got either your head or your feet wet, but not the rest of your body, you would catch a cold. If you ate hot flán or cake, your stomach would get sick. “Mi hijo,” she would say, “don’t eat that or you’ll get empachado.” If you pointed at a rainbow and then touched yourself without washing your hands, you would get pimples wherever you had touched yourself. But the one thing that helped Teddy comprehend how his dog was different was Josefina’s teachings about spirits. She had often said that any place—a house, a church, even a whole barrio—was imbued by either good or bad spirits that had influenced the events there. Teddy had even accompanied his mother on several limpias of homes, where she and the comadres from church anointed doorways with oil, waved bundles of burning sabio in hallways to clear the home of bad memories or mal espíritus that had plagued the families therein.
Even not-happily-ever-after endings are preceded by a certain amount of speculation about what is to come. As a matter of course, all the important changes in organizational structure and relevant administrative decisions take place on the last Thursday of each month, ushered in by a few days heavy with anticipation and flare-ups among the employees.
Sabah sits in front of the computer screen, Americano in hand, trying to concisely respond to customer queries.