Reviews

Friday Reads: February 2021

Curated by ISABEL MEYERS

 

We’re starting 2021 with a Friday Reads packed with recommendations set everywhere from the wilderness of British Columbia to modern day Nigeria. Recommenders from the TC team reflect on how their recent reading tackles issues of gender and sexual identity, strained familial relationships, and of course, a classic murder mystery or two.

 Recommendations: My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, The Reconception of Marie by Teresa Carmody, The Wild Heavens by Sarah Louise Butler, The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

Friday Reads: February 2021
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Review: Three Apples Fell From the Sky

BY NARINE ABGARYAN

(Translated from Russian by Lisa C. Hayden)

reviewed by OLGA ZILBERBOURG

Three Apples Book Cover

A brave writer begins her novel with the deathbed. Instead of hooking a reader the way the proverbial gun on the wall might, opening with a death scene threatens her with the inevitable backstory.

Luckily, Narine Abgaryan is both a brave and an experienced writer. Three Apples Fell from the Sky is her fifth full-length novel, which won Russia’s prestigious Yasnaya Polyana Literary Award in 2016. Maine-based Lisa C. Hayden translated this novel for Oneworld, and after a COVID19-based delay, the book was released in the UK in August 2020. The novel opens with Anatolia Sevoyants, the protagonist, as she lies down “to breathe her last.” Soon, though, we learn that while Anatolia fully intends to die, life is far from finished with her.

Review: Three Apples Fell From the Sky
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Friday Reads: December 2020

Curated by ISABEL MEYERS

In the final Friday Reads of 2020, we’re hearing again from our volunteer readers on what books have been keeping them engrossed and entertained as the weather gets colder. For this second batch, our readers highlight books set everywhere from an Anishinaabe reserve in Ontario to Sofia, Bulgaria and a city in 1950s Italy.

Read our first round of volunteer reader recommendations here.

Recommendations: Writers & Lovers by Lily King; Cleanness by Garth Greenwell; Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice; Marcovaldo, or The Seasons in the City by Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver.

Friday Reads: December 2020
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Review: The Life Assignment

Book by RICARDO MALDONADO

Review by ALICIA MIRELES CHRISTOFF

 

The Life Assignment cover

 

The word ‘heart’ means nothing to the heart. –Dionne Brand

 

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado calls his poems incantatory: they are meant to be sung or recited, to gather sense through their sounds. I felt this reading The Life Assignment: the enormous power of words–flat on the page and threatening permanent inertness–rising up animated and alive when given mouth and breath and ear, like fallen leaves swirled up by the wind. The collection opens with “I Give You My Heart / Os doy mi corazón,” written the week of September 20, 2017, after Hurricane Maria, the Category 5 superstorm that devastated the island and killed thousands in the Caribbean, made landfall in Puerto Rico. Maldonado’s speaker – perhaps living at a distance from the island, in New York City, at the time, like the poet himself – intones:

Review: The Life Assignment
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Review: The Scent of Buenos Aires: Stories by Hebe Uhart

Book by HEBE UHART
Translated from the Spanish by MAUREEN SHAUGHNESSY
Reviewed by JASMINE V. BAILEY

Cover of The Scent of Buenos Aires

In Argentina, the short story is not what you write until you manage to write a novel; it is a lofty form made central by twentieth-century titans like Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges and Silvina Ocampo. The form has power and prestige in the broader region as well. Hebe Uhart was a product of that literary tradition and came of age as a writer when Cortázar and Borges were at the height of their fame and literary production. At the end of her life, Uhart was recognized by a lifetime achievement award from Argentina’s National Endowment for the Arts and by the international Manuel Rojas Iberian American Award for Literature. Though she produced many volumes, including two novels and several travelogues, she is known for her short stories. It is appropriate, then, that her first work to appear in English — The Scent of Buenos Aires — is a collection of short stories (translated from the Spanish by Maureen Shaughnessy).

Review: The Scent of Buenos Aires: Stories by Hebe Uhart
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Friday Reads: LaToya Faulk

By LATOYA FAULK

 

In this special, mid-month edition of Friday Reads, Issue 20 contributor LaToya Faulk shares her recent recommendations and reflects on motherhood in the pandemic, entering discussions on race and queerness with her daughter, and the life-altering power of babies. Take a read and make sure to grab your copy of Issue 20 here.

Recommendations: Little Labors by Rivka Galchen; The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert; Memorial Drive by Natasha Tretheway; Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journey into Race, Motherhood, and History by Camille T. Dungy

 

Since March, I’ve been home with my precious and verbose seven-year-old girl. It’s mostly me and her, so mothering feels more immediate. Such immediacy has a way of repositioning the self-as-reader, and I’ve found refuge in the declarative work of writers who incite new ways of understanding how to parent in the blissfulness of childrearing and the failures of it too, especially under the precarious times of a pandemic. With this, books like Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors, Brandy Colbert The Only Black Girls in Town, Natasha Tretheway’s Memorial Drive, and Camille T. Dungy’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journey into Race, Motherhood, and History bring me closer to understanding the many ways we imprint ourselves upon our children, and how they equally imprint themselves upon us.

Friday Reads: LaToya Faulk
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Review: That Time of Year

Novel by MARIE NDIAYE

Translated from the French by JORDAN STUMP

Reviewed by ELLIE RAMBO

rambo review

I first encountered the phrase “victim of hospitality” in the Republic of Georgia, where after many elaborate toasts in their honor, plates of food pushed their way, and cups of wine pressed into their hands, tourists begin to sense the impossibility of turning something down. As generously good-natured as these offers are, at some point the visitors’ inability to reject them represents their larger lack of control within the unfamiliar setting.

In Marie NDiaye’s novel That Time of Year, translated from the French by Jordan Stump, a schoolteacher from Paris experiences a more ominous loss of control over his life while on vacation. The character, Herman, becomes the victim of a much darker kind of hospitality, and he is eventually so numbed by local good manners, glacial bureaucracy, and gloomy weather that he loses his desire to escape his hospitable captors.

Review: That Time of Year
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Friday Reads: November 2020

Curated by ISABEL MEYERS

In the November installment of Friday Reads, our Issue 20 contributors reflect on the pedagogies of teaching over Zoom, the engines of colonialism, and the process of breaking down cultural divides. As the weather gets colder, curl up with one of these recommendations, and make sure to pick up your copy of Issue 20 today.

 

Recommendations: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys; Poems in the Manner Of… by David Lehman; The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller; Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire by Annette K. Joseph-Gabriel

 

Friday Reads: November 2020
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Review: Some Go Home by Odie Lindsey

Book by ODIE LINDSEY

Review by JULIA LICHTBLAU

Reading the three-page first chapter of Some Go Home, Odie Lindsey’s first novel and second book of fiction, I had the “hell, yeah” feeling I usually get after hearing a killer guitar solo. 

Colleen, a traumatized veteran of the Iraq war, freshly “classified as pregnant” by the Memphis VA hospital and deeply ambivalent, decides to climb on her roof to clear off tornado-blown branches. She will smoke, get stung by a yellowjacket, slip and fall on what turns out to be a nest of crushed baby squirrels, stomp the lone, doomed squirrel survivor, and finish clearing the roof, all while her mind fights the preposterous novelty of motherhood. 

The opening chapter’s funny-sad-tough portrait of no-kind-of lady morphs into an evocation of place—and the problem with this particular place, Pitchlynn, Mississippi:

She shut her eyes and listened to the tamped thump of hip-hop in the distance, and knew that just across the county road a group of boys communed around an old car with a new stereo… Black or White boys, or maybe both, cutting up and ditching school, doing the same thing their fathers had done, beneath the same scab of sun, a different soundtrack on the radio. So went the narrative in rural north Mississippi. For them, for her, for everyone, forever.  

Pitchlynn is Colleen’s hometown, a place she left as a veteran and returned to, emotionally scarred from sexual assault, a past that gets its full due in the short story “Colleen,” from Lindsey’s collection, We Come to Our Senses. For readers like myself, whose mental map of the South is non-granular, the Mississippi state line is about fifteen miles south of Memphis.  

In Some Go Home, Lindsey, a Southerner and veteran, tackles the South and PTSD, two themes of We Come to Our Senses, in which race wasn’t a major focus. But here the South or Southern-ness encompasses White supremacy and PTSD harkens back to slavery. The novel is a complex orchestration of three non-chronological narratives told from multiple points of view. They don’t converge on a singular plot resolution. But they do sum up Pitchlynn. One rich family hanging onto most of the cards. Blacks and whites barely interacting, except via the prison system. Family ties that are, if anything, terrifying. 

Colleen’s narrative takes us through pregnancy and birth; detours back to her return from Iraq; self-medication; recovery; a raucous stint as a local beauty queen—the Strawberry Maiden; and the dogged, funny courtship of Derby, Colleen’s husband. Colleen’s antics and debates with herself over gender roles—though she’d never use such a fancy-ass professor term for headbutting—make her the most endearing character of the novel and the one I voted most likely to beat the past at its nasty game of holding a person down till they give up.

More witness than actor in the novel—and his life—Derby connects Colleen’s narrative to the other two. He wants to be a good husband and father to his twins, which is more ambitious than it sounds, given his heritage. His estranged father, Hare, an embittered veteran and sharecropper, is being re-tried for the murder of Gabe, a Black man, in 1964. Hare had earlier escaped conviction thanks to a hung jury and a passive prosecutor. 

Zig-zagging through time, the Gabe/Hare story takes us from Gabe’s grandfather, who bought his land after Reconstruction, to Gabe’s refusal to follow his wife and daughter north out of devotion to the land. We see the town gentry enlist Hare in a plot to take Gabe’s land for a country club with instructions to “do whatever it takes”; we see the run-up to the new trial through Doc, Gabe’s son-in-law and Hare’s prison guard, a role that torments Doc, as he tries to reconcile his function and his wife’s craving for justice for her father. Doc’s wife, too, suffers from PTSD. 

Although Hare claims to the end that he wasn’t the murderer, there’s no shortage of motive. 

Hare’s reward is his own land. 

After the first trial, Hare devoted himself to harassing Black neighbors and spurring drunk White men to a racist frenzy in front of a cinder block wall he and supporters constructed behind his house, making his backyard into a meeting ground, which he called a “Platz,” inspired by Nazi monuments he saw during his wartime service in Germany. This scene was Derby’s childhood. 

The Gabe/Hare saga is the most complex and fraught thread, by virtue of its dissection of racial brutality. It’s also the most beautifully written. In prose that reminded me of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, Lindsey deploys the nuances of dialect—poor white, rich white, poor black—to reveal the depravity of rich whites and the desperation of poor ones. Here’s Mr. Wallis, the town’s big man, needling Hare with the skill of a practiced torturer: 

“How’s that feel, Harold? Your dear wife, Syl, is still dressed in feed sack, like her mama would’ve worn? You boy startin’ the county school, instead of bein’ up to the new Christian academy with his own kind? My Susan George is in class there.” 

He moves on to flattery, before dangling the bait: “I’m suggesting you be awarded a bit more stake, for a bit more work. For instance, the ability to obtain some of your own land?”

Land is security, food, honor, pride. Gabe, a Black man, has all of that. Worse, Hare knows that his wife admires the man. 

Hare speaks in a humble, somewhat schooled way to his social betters. At home, he sounds like this: “They say, and I do. Then I say, and you do. Ain’t no way around it, lest you want to move again… Cause they ain’t but a handful of farms still left to work on shares.”

In a surreal side plot, Sonny, Hare’s son with Sylvia—aka Syl, his then-wife—flies down in a small plane from Chicago hoping to exculpate his father, but he crashes and slowly dies, hallucinating about his childhood. Sonny never talks, but we are privy to his memories, which reveal that in her desperation to leave Hare, Sylvia asked Gabe to drive her and Sonny to the train to Chicago, knowing her departure would give Hare a pretext to kill Gabe. 

The third thread centers on Derby’s boss, JP, who has moved with his infant daughter from Chicago to take over his late wife’s property, a mansion featuring a colossal magnolia with which the town hopes to brand itself as a destination. The mansion was moved from the old Wallis farm to make way for the country club after Gabe’s land was taken. JP’s provocative renovation plans pit him against his wife’s aunt Susan George Wallis—daughter of the odious Mr. Wallis—who drove her niece to suicidal depression by blaming her for the accidental death of her cousin. Susan has set herself up as the preserver of the town’s Southern charm. She is domineering, petty, short on self-knowledge, long on self-pity, and unable to empathize with her late niece or JP. JP’s need for retribution against Susan for her cruelty to his wife eventually drives him and Derby, who is committed to staying in the town, apart.                  

Some Go Home is a deep and complex book. The fractured structure makes it easy to miss clues. On first reading, the narratives seemed too condensed to me. I felt as if I were trying to piece together each character’s truth from incomplete impressions. But on re-reading, the missing pieces often turned up in unexpected places. A rich reward for an inattentive first reading, perhaps. 

Lindsey is in the scrum with the major Southern writers—from Faulkner on—seeking to understand the region’s pathologies and strengths. At the same time, this book feels very much of the moment in its frank depiction of poor whites (Hare is a proto-Trumpist, if there ever was one), as well as its treatment of woman veterans. Lindsey doesn’t paste a happy ending on any of his characters’ lives. But he does grant them moments of grace. Colleen, incurably restless soldier/mother, finds a way to leave without abandonment, and Derby, living “different, only in the exact same place, rehabbing family,” finds a non-toxic way of being Southern.

The book’s title is borrowed from a song by Jerry Jeff Walker, in which a singer who “can’t go home” observes, pities, and envies other people on a train who are going home. That train’s just movin’ on down the line/Leavin’ people who ever did fall behind/And I wanna begin somewhere/But for me there’s nothing true out there/So I go down the line.”

Pitchlynn is full of people like the ones in Walker’s song, falling behind, beginning again, doubting everything they do. Some leave, and some, like Colleen, make it home, for a while, anyway. 

 

Julia Lichtblau’s essays, criticism, and fiction have appeared in American Fiction, The American Scholar, Commonweal, The Common, Blackbird, Narrative, The Florida Review, and elsewhere. She was book review editor of The Common for seven years, taught writing about business and the economy at Drew University, and was a reporter and editor in New York and Paris for BusinessWeek and Dow Jones. She has an MFA in Fiction from Bennington College.

Review: Some Go Home by Odie Lindsey
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Friday Reads: October 2020

Curated by ISABEL MEYERS

Here at The Common, we’re gearing up to celebrate our 10th anniversary with the release of our fall issue. In this installment of Friday Reads, we’re hearing from some of our Issue 20 contributors on the books they’ve been enjoying. Keep reading for their recommendations—from a Portuguese classic to a reflection on male friendship in New York City—and don’t forget to pre-order your copy of Issue 20 today.

Recommendations: Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda; A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

Friday Reads: October 2020
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