Once again, The Common and Amherst College are honored to welcome a selection of visionary authors to our third annual LitFest–a weekend long series of events celebrating literary brilliance and nuanced expression. The talks, workshops, and panels will include, among other voices, 2017 National Book Award Finalists. This month, our staff and interns have chosen their reading in anticipation of our guests, and we present here our thoughts on just a few of these dazzling works. For more information on LitFest, please visit the Amherst College website.
Early on in Empire of Glass, the novel’s American narrator offers fair warning that what follows will not be straightforward: “So much of what I’m telling you is already reimagined, reconfigured so convex angles are made concave, mirrors reflecting other mirrors reflecting an uncertain, setting sun.” That includes her name, Lao K (or “Familiar K”), a nickname her Chinese homestay family gave to replace “a long, complicated name we could never pronounce.”
This month, our Issue 14 contributors are reading works that examine the seams of time, from the construction of a fleeting impression, to the scaffolding of a historical drama. Whether it be a poem read from a pulpit or a paperback fished serendipitously from a pile of freebies, these recommendations celebrate literature’s ability to break through temporal boundaries.
Whether you’ve already read Issue 14 twice or you’ve been stealing guilty glances at the untouched copy on your night stand, enjoy a little bonus content from our Issue 14 contributors! This month, our recommendations probe the supposed linear formation of our lives by questioning how we conceptualize our tasks, societies, and time itself. Poetic, comedic, and tragic, these reads shed light on contradictory forces often taken for granted.
Folks, it’s September. Time to stow away that summer beach read and pull out the award-winning tome that’s going to get you noticed by the cute grad student in the coffee shop. This month, read about starkly different economic and cultural worlds existing side by side. As the poor and the rich, the colonizer and the native shift uneasily along slippery fault lines, these recommendations offer brutal looks at friction between and within communities. Harrowing and insightful, you’ll be so engrossed you won’t even notice the number written on your to-go cup.
Some writers present us with a slice of life. Others create a universe. Pakistani novelist Nadeem Aslam, the author of five novels who has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize twice, is a universe creator. His novels are steeped in the culture, history and traditions of the Muslim worlds of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Kashmir. Aslam emigrated to England from Pakistan with his family, political exiles on the wrong side of the military junta, when he was fourteen. He learned to read and write English by hand-copying his text books. His father was a poet/activist, and his parent’s marriage was arranged, so he experienced first-hand the issues of a society that offers few prospects for advancement for women and scarcely more for a man not from the monied classes.
This month, in response to a world that appears to be split across slippery fault lines, our interns are recommending books that explore cultural unity and interconnectedness. With attention to language, power, racism, and sex, these books ask the reader to reconsider her place in time as an intimate moment in a wider web of humanity.
It felt foreordained to open this short story collection by the Norwegian writer Gunnhild Øyehaug and find IKEA on the first page, as in: “…park the car outside IKEA.” IKEA, now based in the Netherlands, originated in Sweden, but to many foreigners, it personifies Scandinavia—pleasant and unthreatening. “Blah, how boring,” was my first thought. Then, trying to stave off disappointment at being welcomed by the all-too-familiar global brand, I told myself, “Well, I guess IKEA did start somewhere nearby. Perhaps, Scandinavians have a particular attachment to clean lines.” (Nervous laughter.) I know that stereotyping is a form of blindness; in practice, my desire for novelty trips me up and leads to overly broad generalizations. Like a tourist, I had to remind myself to check my expectations at the airport.
Outside Is the Ocean, Matthew Lansburgh’s debut short story collection, is a particularly complete and satisfying example of the linked genre. The stories reveal a long, novelistic arc, while the broken chronology captures the fragmented personality of the central character, Heike, and the chaos she sows.
A gentile, post-war German immigrant to California, Heike speaks and thinks in a German-inflected English that’s full of mangled idioms—as in the opening line of the book: “Al gives me zero.” Or: “She thinks the world will give her French toast on a silver platter.” Heike disappoints and infuriates everyone, but is perversely optimistic, which gives many of the stories a certain hilarity, even the saddest ones. Humor enables Heike’s gay son, Stewart, a literature professor, and her adopted, one-armed Russian daughter, Galina, to survive her boundless narcissism and neediness.
Ah, July Friday Reads, where the temperatures are high and the stakes are even higher. This month, read alongside Issue 13 contributors and our managing editor as we face devastating epidemics, maternal death, and the eternal angst of feminine adolescence. Though each book finds a uniqueness in its approach to calamity, each work uses the minute details to capture the universal perils of love, loss, and loneliness.