Reviews

Breaking the Rules of Time Travel: A Film Review of Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman

Film by CÉLINE SCIAMMA

Review by HANNAH GERSEN

cover of petite maman. shows two girls hugging each other

Petite Maman, Céline Sciamma’s fifth feature-length film, following 2019’s critically acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is a time travel story that reminded me of one of my favorite movies from childhood: Back to the Future. Aesthetically, the two have very little in common—one is an art house movie with unknown child actors, the other a somewhat goofy studio feature starring Michael J. Fox—but at the narrative core of both films is a deep psychological wish that many children harbor: to know their parents when they were younger. In Back to the Future, a teenage Marty McFly accidentally travels back in time to meet his parents at the beginning of their high school romance. In Petite Maman, eight-year-old Nelly stumbles into a kind of woodland passageway through which she can visit her mother’s childhood and play with her mother as an eight-year-old girl. In this alternate reality, Nelly also interacts with her maternal grandmother who, in Nelly’s present-day timeline, has recently passed away. 

Breaking the Rules of Time Travel: A Film Review of Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman
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Friday Reads: April 2022

Curated by ELLY HONG

Here at The Common, our incisive volunteer readers are the first to review fiction and nonfiction submissions to the magazine. In this month’s round of Friday Reads, they recommend three exciting new works of speculative fiction.

Recommendations: How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu, Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, and The Labyrinth by Simon Stålenhag

Image of the cover of How High We Go in the Dark (light-blue sky with clouds and moon cycle pictured diagonally).

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s How High We Go in the Dark; recommended by Natasha Ayaz (volunteer reader)

I read How High We Go in The Dark by the water in Aruba, in a state of ceaseless cognitive dissonance. This breathtaking novel maps a sweeping cartography of human suffering and endurance, crystallizing around the collapse of civilization after an ancient plague is unleashed via Siberian permafrost. Admittedly, there were initial moments when I doubted whether this book was the appropriate choice for the tropical landscape—as I attempted a beachside detox from two years (and counting) of my own pandemic routine—but, in fact, the setting enhanced my reading experience. The blues of the Aruban vista reminded me of the sheer beauty of the natural world, all of which is precious, ephemeral, and at stake in both the novel and our increasingly troubling reality. I would read a story about, say, an amusement park for child euthanasia or a father struggling to complete his daughter’s world-saving climate research—and then look toward the sea and feel gripped with desperate love for all that we now have that we may not ten, twenty, thirty years from now.

Climate terror aside, it’s a rare thing to find a novel in stories so infinite in scope and so painstakingly, poetically linked. In How High We Go in The Dark, Sequoia Nagamatsu presents a constellation of voices in a universe of wonder. He intricately imagines the most harrowing potential futures of our world as we hurtle toward climate disaster and capitalist nightmare, but with such resolute tenderness that the ensuing pain is not only tolerable, but alchemized into hope. He charts the course of life on Earth from the first aquatic lifeform’s prehistoric emergence to the dawn of intergalactic civilization, guiding readers on a journey that shatters the heart and defies the time-space continuum. 

Nagamatsu’s imagination is inestimable, and this book possesses a fatidic awareness, warning us of the dire consequences of our ongoing actions. It is equal parts cautionary tale and spiritual affirmation, leaving readers in awe of the vital, unseen threads that course through every living thing. The future is terribly uncertain, but love is relentless. We will never be alone.

Image of the book cover of Project Hail Mary (person falling backwards through yellow-black space with rope attached to their torso).

Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary; recommended by Heather Brennan (volunteer reader) 

As someone who has found it difficult to read novels involving apocalyptic threats during the pandemic, I still thoroughly enjoyed Project Hail Mary. When an alien organism that consumes light suddenly infects our solar system’s sun, a coalition of world governments recruits a middle school science teacher named Ryland Grace to help analyze the new organism (named Astrophage) and generate potential solutions before Earth is plunged into a new ice age. Grace, a former molecular biologist, unwittingly becomes the world’s foremost expert on Astrophage and helps assemble a team of astronauts to travel to a nearby star that might be the key to Earth’s salvation. The book begins as Grace wakes up on the starship he helped to design with absolutely no memory of what he is doing there or where he is going. He is alone, the two other crew members apparently unable to survive the time spent in a coma. He must figure out his past and develop a plan for the future that will both save the planet and rescue him from what appears to be a suicide mission. 

Weir’s style of science fiction is both accurate and inclusive, imagining awe-inspiring scientific discoveries supported by plausible math and logic that the average reader can follow. Grace is a capable and witty narrator, and he walks the reader through his thought processes as he navigates unforeseen crises and comes to terms with his own flaws as his memory returns. For fans of The Martian’s wry humor and attention to detail, Project Hail Mary is an energetic dive back into problem-solving and collaboration in the face of catastrophic failure. Anyone looking for space exploration, extraterrestrials, and unlikely friendships will find this book an instant hit. 

Image of the cover of The Labyrinth (people walking on the ocean floor amidst old ruined buildings).

Simon Stålenhag’s The Labyrinth; recommended by Samuel Jensen (volunteer reader)

For me, it’s a rare thing to finish a book and then immediately start it over again. A month ago I did this with Simon Stålenhag’s The Labyrinth. The latest in the artist, musician, and writer’s bibliography of what one might call literary sci-fi picture books for adults, The Labyrinth tells the story of Sigrid and Matt, siblings who travel on a routine science mission to the Earth’s surface from Kungshall, their secured, underground facility of survivors. In tow is Charlie, a teenager whom the siblings adopted during Kungshall’s messy, violent founding. The surface itself is a ruin, strange black globes wrapping all in a destroying miasma. From the ashes, enormous, striped alien fauna grows.

Stålenhag is well known for his signature art style, which places surreal technology or entities in otherwise utterly domestic tableaus often informed by details from Stålenhag’s childhood in eighties and nineties Sweden. The art of The Labyrinth tends more sci-fi overall, but if you followed Stålenhag on socials as he worked on the book, you would have seen careful preliminary paintings of very specific chairs, thermoses, and other objects that, in the book itself, have huge spreads dedicated to them. (My special favorite of these is of a certain handset phone.) In the moment, we wonder: why dedicate pages and ink to such mundane objects only? But this is The Labyrinth’s exact genius. It is a book about comings and goings, a book that, as Sigrid and Matt leave on, then return from, sample-gathering expeditions, plays with sequences of like images that progress or repeat as the siblings’ conversations circle the book’s dark heart. The book encloses and then, suddenly, opens.

The reason I started The Labyrinth again right after finishing was to flip back and forth between these sequences. Not exactly to look for things hidden, but just to look, knowing what I then knew. In a science-fiction world, Stålenhag’s focused domesticity becomes a kind of ghost-in-reverse of the things that will happen to these objects, in these spaces and to the people in them. I don’t want to say too much, but there are a few sequences featuring the characters themselves that I will not soon forget.

The glue to all this visual work is The Labyrinth’s prose, which is spare and matter of fact in the voice of its narrator, Sigrid. The writing is beautiful in its own right, and essential context for the images. Reading the siblings talk about Charlie while looking at the paintings of them walking around in their cabled suits, the experience is like listening to a radio while watching archive footage from the future. The stuff on the radio is bleak, even frightening, but you can’t stop listening.

Friday Reads: April 2022
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A Memorandum of My Several Senses: Chloe Honum’s The Lantern Room

Reviewed by REBECCA GAYLE HOWELL

Lantern Room cover

On a Sabbath day in 1855, Emily Dickinson wrote a letter to her dear one, Mrs. Holland. Mrs. Holland was the poet’s chosen sister, a mentor and friend in gardening and recipes, householding and womanhood. They were correspondents for more than 30 years, sharing their litanies of living a life. This particular letter concerned the disorienting process of moving house. The Dickinson family was returning to their homeplace. It was the house where Emily was born and it would be the house where she died. But in that moment, having lived fifteen years elsewhere, she felt pillaged and lost, a kind of expat from her country of knowns.

A Memorandum of My Several Senses: Chloe Honum’s The Lantern Room
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Friday Reads: March 2022

Curated by ELLY HONG

This month’s round of Friday Reads features two unforgettable collections of short fiction recommended by the TC team. Read on for a sparkling exploration of sapphic love, and dark tales where Japanese folklore is given new life.

Recommendations: Amora by Natalia Borges Polesso, translated by Julia Sanches and Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone by Sequoia Nagamatsu

Friday Reads: March 2022
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Through a Pink Cloud, Darkly: A Review of Iuli Gerbase’s The Pink Cloud

Film by IULI GERBASE

Review by HANNAH GERSEN

Cover of The Pink Cloud

A title card at the beginning of Iuli Gerbase’s debut feature, The Pink Cloud, informs viewers that its screenplay was written in 2017, and that it was filmed in 2019. What follows is a movie so in tune with the events and moods of 2020 that you would be forgiven for finding this level of prescience impossible to believe. The premise is simple: a toxic pink cloud formation suddenly appears in the sky. Its vapors are deadly, killing people after ten seconds. With only a few minutes of warning, an unnamed Brazilian city is locked down. People are ordered to go indoors immediately; if they are not at home, they are to go into the nearest building, whether it’s a bakery, a grocery store, or the apartment complex they happened to be passing by. Giovana and Yago, the couple at the center of the movie, are on the balcony of Giovana’s apartment when they hear the news, recovering after a late night of partying. We quickly learn that they don’t know each other well; they are waking up from a one-night stand that has been extended indefinitely.

Through a Pink Cloud, Darkly: A Review of Iuli Gerbase’s The Pink Cloud
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Friday Reads: February 2022

Curated by ELLY HONG

This round of Friday Reads features recommendations from three of our online contributors: Carolyn Oliver, author of “Magic Mile;” Rajosik Mitra, author of “Cockroach;” and Jennifer Shyue, translator of “The Eclipse” and author of “Mother’s Tongue.” Their recommendations include two stunning poetry collections and a graphic novel classic.

Recommendations: Pigeon by Karen Solie, The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, and The Science of Departures by Adalber Salas Hernández, translated by Robin Myers

Friday Reads: February 2022
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Friday Reads: January 2022

Curated by ELLY HONG

This round of Friday Reads features recommendations from two of our online contributors: Jane McCafferty, author of “These Winters in Pittsburgh are Making Us Strong,” and Emma Ferguson, translator of poetry by Esther Ramón. The memoirs they recommend provide a window into the lives of two dynamic and extraordinary women.

Recommendations: I AM I AM I AM: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell and What You Have Heard Is True by Carolyn Forché

Friday Reads: January 2022
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Review: What Isn’t Remembered by Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry

Story collection by KRISTINA GORCHEVA-NEWBERRY

Review by JULIA LICHTBLAU

Cover Page for What Isn't Remembered, by Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry. The book cover has a scene of a lighthouse near the water, with a blocky and colorful art style.

There are two Russias in Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry’s passionate and accomplished debut short-story collection, What Isn’t Remembered, winner of the 2021 Raz/Shumaker Prairie Schooner Book Prize. The geographical country, where many of the stories take place, and the mental state of Russianness, which characters carry with them in the diaspora. There is also America, an alluring, often disappointing exile—and there are Americans, mostly well-meaning, who struggle to live with their mercurial Russian lovers, spouses, friends, or children, whose Russianness comprises the psychic ramifications of political and historical traumas going back multiple generations—World War II, Soviet rule, the chaotic break-up of the USSR, or the Armenian genocide, to name a few.

Review: What Isn’t Remembered by Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry
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Friday Reads: December 2021

Curated by ELLY HONG

For our December round of Friday Reads, we spoke to two of our contributors from Issue 22. Read on for recommendations that strike a unique balance between comedy and tragedy.

Recommendations: Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel, and Dark Lies the Island by Kevin Barry

Friday Reads: December 2021
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Film Review: El Planeta

Review by HANNAH GERSEN 
Movie directed by AMALIA ULMAN

Image of a film still from El Planeta: black and white photo of one a woman choking another woman while wearing winter coats.

In Amalia Ulman’s debut feature, El Planeta, which she wrote and directed, Ulman and her real-life mother (Ale Ulman) play a mother and a daughter awaiting eviction. Ulman’s character, Leo (short for Leonor), has returned home after the death of her father, whose sporadic alimony payments barely supported her mother when he was alive. Leo is jobless and so is her mother, María. The two women spend most of the film in their narrow galley kitchen where the sunlight is abundant, and they aren’t tempted to waste money on electric lighting. Their refrigerator is empty, save for the tiny slips of paper María places in the freezer, each one bearing the handwritten name of an enemy. Atop the refrigerator are multiple glasses of water, which have something to do with María’s witchcraft—a practice that seems more like a distracting hobby than a coherent belief system. Leo sews bizarre yet fashionable clothing by hand, having sold her sewing machine for cash. They drink coffee, cook pasta, and, when they are really hungry, dress up in designer clothing and run up large bills in restaurants and stores, promising to pay later or claiming that Leo’s boyfriend is a local politician who will pick up the tab. They live in Gijón, a small city on Spain’s northern coast, a place hit hard by the global recession, with shuttered shops and empty tourist districts. It’s no wonder these two women are more at home in their delusions of grandeur. 

Film Review: El Planeta
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