The city as a character in its own right is a frequent device in otherwise disparate novels. In Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion (1987), a water-shimmering, pleasure-seeking Venice forms the fabric of the female protagonist’s life. Andrei Bely’s modernist tour-de-force Petersburg (1916), following a long tradition in Russian literature, portrays this city as both the site and driver of the action. For the navel-gazing narrator of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913-1927), Paris and other locations in France are integral sources of his copious memories. The commonality among such city-infused works is the reputation of said cities: world-renowned and possessed of their own symbolic capital and literary mythology. The associations are not always positive—writers often portray big cities as dirty, oppressive, even demonic—but the cities historically portrayed in literature are famed embodiments of grandeur and stature.
Everything about Happy Singh Soni, the titular hero of Celina Baljeet Basra’s stinging first novel, is unlikely. He is the son of Punjabi cabbage farmers, but he fancies himself a screenwriter and prospective movie actor in the mold of Nouvelle Vague darling Sami Frey. (Indeed, he has effectively memorized Godard’s Bande à part.) He imagines his future in a Europe of all the classic allures, living in an elegant stone house with a yellow door; he is all about the details, which are uniformly sensual and full of wonder to him. Even as a child on his parents’ modest farm, he begins practicing for the day when his public utterances will be sought after by the press, so he invents a series he titles “The Loo Interviews,” conducted by an eager reporter for the gossipy Jodhpur News . . . while he occupies the privy.
He is in exuberant love with all he experiences, especially his mother’s adoringly proffered fried treats. Happy even appreciates the pests that afflict the surrounding farmland that is slowly being consumed by the amoeba of a badly managed Disneyland knockoff called Wonderland, where he takes a desultory job in which his nascent talents are ignored. He is the kind of imaginative soul who can’t help but personify even the stars in the sky (“Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde”).
The walls of the art gallery behind the rotunda are lined with large paintings of gods and goddesses that loom above the viewer, giving the sense that the mythological figures are larger than life. On its own wall—separate from its goddess-themed counterparts—is an 1817 oil painting by Jacques-Louis David. “Cupid and Psyche” is an arresting image that shows a teenage Cupid smirking at viewers—like he’s letting them in on a joke—as he tosses an arm over Psyche. Both of the painting’s subjects are fully naked. Psyche is asleep, so the viewer can only guess how she would feel if she were to realize how Cupid is showing off his “sexual conquest” by slinging his arm between her breasts.
Sometimes visiting a new neighborhood can change your life. While scouting locations for a fashion shoot, filmmaker Naomi Yang happened upon a boxing gym in East Boston. The modest second-generation family business, with its sparring ring and wall of framed black-and-white photographs depicting local boxers, seemed like a great backdrop. Unfortunately, the gym’s owner and head coach, Sal Bartolo, Jr., disagreed, citing aprevious photo shoot that had gone badly, with high heels destroying his mats. There would be no fashion shoots in his gym. Instead, he gave Yang his pitch to all visitors, telling her to come back for a free boxing lesson. In voiceover, Yang confides to us that she did not take the offer seriously and didn’t plan to return. And yet, a few weeks later, she did. Part of her was holding out hope that Bartolo would change his mind. But another part felt drawn to boxing, and Bartolo’s gym would soon become the center of her life. Yang’s documentary tells the story of how this chance meeting at a boxing gym brought her into a deeper understanding of herself, and of the ways bullying forces can leave their mark on places as well as people.
As this week of costumes, candy, and spooky Halloween cheer comes to an end, we at The Common are gearing up for the launch of our fall issue! Issue 26—full of vivid poems and prose from all over the world, as well as a special portfolio of writing and art from the migrant farmworker community—launches this coming Monday. After a brief Friday Reads hiatus, to get you excited about the issue, we return this month with recommendations from Issue 26 contributors Ned Balbo and Nora Rodriguez Camagna. Keep reading to see what’s been on their shelves this fall!
A mentor once told me, “you write to the places you are not,” and I think that is true for not only what I write, but also what I read. Since moving to the Southeast U.S., with its millennia-old forests and rolling thunderstorms, I’ve taken to reading about the places I’ve come from: Oregon, Southern California, and the islands upon which I was born and raised, the place where my family has lived as settlers for over three generations—Hawaiʻi.
“Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are,” suggests philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. Based on her collection Dialect of Distant Harbors, Dipika Mukherjee would agree, I believe, but “landscapes” here would have to be plural, because in addition to geographical landscapes, these poems embrace multiple settings, languages, weather, generations, relationships, and traditions and rituals, both spiritual and secular. Through experiences both lived and dreamed, her poems invite the reader to discover beauty, danger, and heartbreak by exploring new worlds and revealing heart-stopping moments of intimacy. The harbors she describes are distant but never forgotten, both welcoming and estranging.
Although they are not named or numbered, we can see by the choice of extra spacing between each group of five to seven poems in the table of contents that Mukherjee has created seven sections for this collection. Throughout the book, each section is separated by a graceful lotus mandala, similar to those that adorn sacred texts and women’s hands hennaed for special occasions. These seven symbolic pauses serve as a constant reminder of the overarching message of healing, resilience, and rebirth in all the poems carefully gathered here. They also invite the reader to pay special attention to seven central themes: generational roots, the misogyny and physical torture women suffer, the passing of time, the horrific violence of racial and cultural hate, mortality, migration and exile, and the value of travel.
Review: Poems of Encounter in Dipika Mukherjee’s Dialect of Distant Harbors
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.
The art critic Jerry Saltz peppers his Twitter feed with advice to artists. Recently, he wrote: “Artists: Every single second you spend on being jealous of someone else is a complete waste of life.” Reading it, I thought of Lizzy, the sculptor at the center of Kelly Reichardt’s new film. Showing Up is a dry comedy that is a love letter to anyone who finds time to make art while holding down a day job and trying not to let anxieties—which might arrive in the form of jealousy, resentment, or self-loathing—get the best of them. What makes this story unusual is that it focuses on an artist in mid-career, someone who has honed her talent and is respected by her peers, but who is not famous or conventionally successful. I can think of a lot of movies about artists at the beginning or end of their careers, charting the exciting rise or the tragic crash-and-burn, but there aren’t many filmmakers who can find the drama in the daily life of an artist diligently doing the work.
Welcome to the June round of Friday Reads! Are you hoping to read more this summer? Do you have a favorite shady spot in a backyard or park, but no book to share it with? Read on for exciting recommendations from our contributors. Find stories that reach beyond the scope of normative human experience, essays about writing and writers, and hybrid memoir on music and survival.