Reviews

Friday Reads: September 2017

Curated by SARAH WHELAN

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.

Recommendations: Tales of Two Americas edited by John Freeman, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, and News of the World by Paulette Jiles.


Tales of Two Americas edited by John Freeman, recommended by Diana Babineau Owen (former Managing Editor)

Tales of Two Americas cracks wide open and lays bare America’s failures: its class divisions, racial oppression, inequality (economic and otherwise), lack of equal opportunities, and its unwillingness to treat all people with respect and dignity. At a glance, the title of this anthology might be a bit misleading—this is not just a simple account of two versions of America. Rather, this collection of work sheds light on a multitude of ways that America finds itself divided: between the haves and the have-nots, white and non-white, rich and poor, homeless and not homeless, empowered and disenfranchised. These essays, poems, and short stories, written by a diverse group of authors, offer us windows into the many different lives being lived in America today, all the while grappling with questions of morality and our human desire for self-fulfillment. In Roxane Gay’s short story “How,” we follow a woman named Hanna who feels trapped by the familial obligations foisted upon her. Weighed down by the burden of her alcoholic father, her unemployed husband, and hard economic circumstances, Hanna struggles to fulfill her desires for true love, higher education, peace and quiet, and space (both physical and mental) to feel like an individual, not just a resource to be expended by those around her. In her essay “Looking for a Home,” Karen Russell moves to Portland and examines the fast-paced gentrification of the city, its spikes in rent and no-cause evictions, and its growing homeless population. She contemplates what it means to feel at home—and to feel happy—in a world where so much despair and suffering abounds. When she finds herself stepping over a homeless man on her way back to her apartment, she worries about how easy it is to become desensitized to this suffering—to feel both like it is too overwhelming a problem to fix and also like it is not our problem at all.

This collection boasts an impressive list of acclaimed authors, and the writing is beautiful, honest, bold. But most of all, I appreciate the way these authors engage with these vitally important issues on a level often lacking in daily media but so badly needed, especially in a time when it has become easier and easier to feel disconnected from our neighbors, to feel like we are worlds apart even as we stand at each other’s doorsteps.

Photo courtesy of Amazon

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, recommended by Sophie Murguia (former Editorial Assistant)

At its most basic level, you could say Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a book about economic inequality in India. It’s a subject that has propelled countless economists, political scientists, and journalists to write abstract treatises making sweeping claims. But Boo has wisely taken a more contained approach in a work of nonfiction that closely follows the lives of several women and children living in a Mumbai slum, not far from the glittering airport hotels of India’s financial hub.

Boo introduces readers to Abdul Husain, a teenager who has made a better life for his family by collecting and reselling garbage. Soon, we also meet Abdul’s friend Kalu, along with aspiring slumlord Asha and her college-educated daughter Manju. Through the lens of these characters, Boo tells a true story that reads like an intimate work of fiction. She reconstructs her subjects’ mental states in painstaking detail—the result of extensive and repeated interviews, according to an author’s note. In doing so, Boo builds a bridge from the particular to the general, asking us to consider the concrete human lives of those struggling to escape the status they’ve been assigned in the new global economy.

Image courtesy of Amazon

News of the World by Paulette Jiles, recommended by Sarah Whelan (Assistant Editor)

Alive with war cries, sizzling bacon, and jingling dimes, News of the World is a perilous wagon ride through Reconstruction Texas. The reader’s guide and protector is the steadfast Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, an aging widower who travels the territory reading newspapers to illiterate crowds of villagers. His nomadic lifestyle becomes suddenly saddled with purpose when he agrees to return Johanna, a white girl captured as a small child by Natives, to her relatives in Southern Texas. As the unlikely pair stubbornly push forward, the story’s primary concern is the navigation of distance, from the practical challenges of schlepping a bewildered ten-year-old 200 miles, to bridging a language and cultural gap with a child who believes she’s Kiowa, to calculating how many feet a bullet can fly accurately in shoot-out.

However, the narrative defies the single-mindedness of a traditional adventure story. Almost magically, this gritty reality is suspended whenever the Captain pauses to read the news, opening their world to include the mystic realms of St. Louis, London, the North Pole. Additionally, the lightness of Jiles’s style allows for levity even during moments of cultural misunderstanding, such as when the Captain explains to Johanna that it is “impolite” to scalp her fallen enemies. Ultimately, though News of the World emphasizes the frustrations of cultures clashing, it optimistically suggests that those divides may be overcome through affection and patience.

Flavia MartinezFriday Reads: September 2017
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Review: The Golden Legend

Book by NADEEM ASLAM

Reviewed by FRANCESCA DE ONIS-TOMLINSON

Golden Legend Book Cover

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.

Like many fine South Asian writers including Arundhati Roy (God of Small Things, The Ministry of Happiness) Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), Mohsin Hahmid (Exit West) and Amitav Gosh (In an Antique Land), Aslam explores the disjuncture between Western and Muslim societies as well as the communal hatreds on the subcontinent that have provoked genocidal atrocities on the scale of the Nazi Holocaust or American slavery. There is rich dramatic material in these situations: illicit passions defying societal strictures and the pursuit of enlightenment and personal freedom at immense cost and danger.

In his earlier novels, especially The Wasted Vigil (2008), Aslam made a good case that freedom was incompatible with the medieval mores of fervent Islam, and anyone who could should escape in any way they can. In The Blind Man’s Garden (2004), he seemed to conclude that escape, even by emigration, was impossible. In that book, an unmarried couple who live together openly in a Pakistani community in England are murdered, victims of the community’s morality enforcers. The belief they had left the old world behind proved an illusion.

The world of Aslam’s novels shimmers with beauty ruined by cultural isolation and aggrieved sense of that life is supposed to be a constant ordeal. Fundamentalism is a recurring theme.

The Golden Legend is set in Pakistan, where a sophisticated, worldly couple, Nargis and Massud, both architects, live a westernized life in a community riven by religious and cultural schisms, where Christians are a persecuted minority. It begins on what should be a triumphant day for Nargis and Massud. Their masterpiece—a library to house masterworks of Pakistani and Muslim literature, including sacred texts—is to be stocked in an unusual way. Instead of trucks and movers, who might accidentally defile the books, city school children will form a human chain and pass them through the streets from the old library to the new. Watching, Nargis marvels that they are moving as quickly “as objects rushing along on the rapids of a great river.”

Two extraordinary things set events in motion: A book that Massud’s father wrote the year he was born (the only other known copy is in the rare books division of the New York Public Library) is passed along the chain into his hands. The long-lost book is “a meditation on how pilgrimage, wars, trade, and curiosity led to contact between cultures. Tracing the umbilical connections between places.” It is a deeply humanistic manifesto which proposes that all societies are inextricably linked and condemns intolerance and prejudice. The book had been a touchstone for Massud and Nargis before its disappearance more than a decade before. Massud steps away to leaf through the book and motions to Nargis to fill his space in the chain.

At that moment, gunfire bursts out. Two young men on motorcycles chase a speeding car. Shots ring out from the motorcycles and the car. The children flee in terror, books spill to the ground. In the mayhem, Massud is shot and dies in Nargis’s arms. Both young men are killed by the man driving the car. The driver is taken into custody, but demonstrations erupt. The Pakistani media insist the driver is a CIA agent who was carrying photographs of a secret Pakistani military base. The government claims the American is a diplomat, the target of an assassination attempt by jihadists.

Nargis and Massoud lived in a cultural bubble of their own making. Their intellectual interests encompassed both worlds. They filled their architectural studio in a renovated paper factory with treasures from all around the world:

…shelves of books, a metal helmet for a stallion from the times of the crusades, and there were the vertebrae of a whale from a bay in Antarctica. In one alcove was the earliest known photograph of a snowflake.”

Massud was from a wealthy, aristocratic family. Nargis, an orphan, is the daughter of educated and persecuted Christians who slipped free of her identity when she left home for college. She lost her past almost by accident, assuming a Muslim identity at a sports event after being mistaken for a girl who didn’t appear at registration. The experience liberated her from constant persecution towards Christians among the polarized Muslim orthodoxy on the rise in Pakistan. When she met Massud in university she could not bring herself to tell him who she really was. She conceals this lie throughout their long marriage.

After Massud’s death, Nargis enters the fugue state of sudden tragedy. She takes refuge in her beautiful house and tries to avoid the turmoil and political unrest that follow the shooting. There is no possibility of learning the truth about her husband’s killer, let alone seeing justice served, in this swirl of rumors and demonstrations.

A colonel comes to Nargis with the demand that she “forgive” the American. It is his goal, and that of the generals who run Pakistan, to have the American released under Sharia law, which can be accomplished if the victims of a crime ritually forgive him. Nargis refuses. The colonel douses her with kerosene and threatens to set her on fire. He gives her one week to change her mind, after which he will return to escort her to an appearance in court where she will deliver her pardon. Nargis is well aware how easily people disappear in Pakistan. Massoud’s brother, a young dissident, was tortured and murdered when they were in college. She is as powerless as the poor before the military junta.

Helen, whom Nargis and Massud raised as their surrogate daughter, moves in to comfort her. A writer for a progressive newspaper, she narrowly escapes death when a jihadist attacks the staff for blaspheming the prophet Mohammed, and becomes a target herself of a fundamentalist group.

The night after the colonel’s visit, Nargis wakes up to find her studio and its treasures destroyed, her father-in-law’s book torn to shreds. She and Helen, disguised in hijabs, flee to an island in the remote countryside that Massud’s family owns. Nargis and Massud had long ago built a monument there to an integrated religious community, with a mosque and a Hindu temple, a social experiment that failed.

Along the way, they meet a young deserter from a militant group in Kashmir seeking refuge in Pakistan The Indian government had killed his family and viciously terrorized the Muslim community of Kashmir, and now he is pursued by the militants he joined to avenge his family. Injustice has many rooms in Aslam’s literary mansion.

Imram becomes Nargis and Helen’s protector, venturing into town for food, to charge cell phones, and to monitor the turmoil. They ride out the political upheavals roiling Pakistan there, a poignant, startlingly lovely, and improbable idyll. Love blooms in the lush gardens planted long ago for an unrealizable ideal. Nargis pieces her father-in-law’s book together in the house she designed when she and Massoud thought they could change their world. From here, Nargis plans their escape, hoping to send Helen and Imran into exile by bargaining with the Colonel.

Nargis and Massud’s inability to extend their credo of fusing the intellectual freedom of the West and their culture leaves her with a deep sense of futility but also humility. That they tried is as important as success, Nadeem Aslam seems to say.

In The Blind Man’s Garden, a father, trying to calm a child frightened by a fairy tale, asks: Have you ever heard a story where the evil one wins? “‘No,’ the child said, ‘but before they lose, they harm the good people. That is what I am afraid of.’” That is what we are afraid of, too, for Nargis, Helen, Imran, and the people who have helped them along the way. One prays for their survival in Aslam’s stark universe.

 

Francesca de Onis-Tomlinson is an Emmy and Cine Golden Eagle award-winning television producer and a writer. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College.

 

Debbie WenReview: The Golden Legend
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August 2017 Friday Reads

Curated by SARAH WHELAN 

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.

Recommendations: Dance Dance Revolution by Cathy Park Hong, The Power by Naomi Alderman, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and All the Dirty Parts by Daniel Handler.

Emily EverettAugust 2017 Friday Reads
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Review: Knots

Book by GUNNHILD ØYEHAUG (TRANSLATED BY KARI DICKSON)

Reviewed by OLGA ZILBERBOURG
"Knots" book cover

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.

Isabel MeyersReview: Knots
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Review: Outside Is the Ocean

Book by MATTHEW LANSBURGH

Reviewed by JULIA LICHTBLAU

Outside Is the Ocean book cover

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.

Flavia MartinezReview: Outside Is the Ocean
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Friday Reads: July 2017

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.

Recommendations: Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante, The Girls by Emma Cline, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

Book cover Troubling Love
Troubling Love
by Elena Ferrante, recommended by Megan Fernandes (poetry contributor)

Flavia MartinezFriday Reads: July 2017
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Friday Reads: June 2017

We love any excuse to hear from our contributors! This month, our Issue 13 authors and poets tap into their literary communities as they recommend works by colleagues, friends, and Pulitzer Prize winners. United in their affection, the authors are nonetheless divided by their selections, as their choices shed light upon nowhereness, colonization, and Florida oranges.

Recommendations: Notes on the Inner City by George Szirtes, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen,  The Quiet American by Graham Greene, and Chinatown Sonnets by Dorothy Chan.

 

Notes on the Inner City book titleNotes on the Inner City by George Szirtes, recommended by U. S. Dhuga (poetry contributor)

Isabel MeyersFriday Reads: June 2017
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Friday Reads: May 2017

For May’s Friday Reads, we tapped a few Issue 13 contributors to find out what they’re reading. Their recommendations are diverse and complicated, dealing with hefty subjects—from mourning and the fear of death to geological history. If you haven’t read their works in Issue 13, it’s time to get started.

White Noise

Emily EverettFriday Reads: May 2017
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Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

 

Book by GEORGE SAUNDERS

Reviewed by SUSAN TACENT

Lincoln in the BardoOn February 20, 1862, Abraham and Mary Lincoln lost their eleven-year-old son Willie to what was probably typhoid fever. Some twenty years ago, George Saunders learned about a rumor that had circulated at the time—that Lincoln several times visited the crypt where Willie was temporarily interred, removed the body from its coffin and, in his great grief, cradled his dead child in his arms.

Julia PikeReview: Lincoln in the Bardo
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Friday Reads: April 2017

Our Friday Reads for April travel the world—from cricket practice in a Mumbai slum to a flower stall in New York City, and from the Balkans after the breakup of Yugoslavia to Algiers after the war of independence. Meet the men and women who bring these places to life through their struggles, aspirations, and survival.

Recommended: Selection Day by Aravind Adiga, Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Assia Diebar, and Heritage of Smoke by Josip Novakovich

 

Selection Day Cover

Julia PikeFriday Reads: April 2017
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