Reviews

Friday Reads: March 2019

Curated by: SARAH WHELAN

Issue 17 is almost here! Subscribe by March 31st to get your copy, then kick off the weekend with a book recommendation from one of our Issue 17 contributors. This month, our contributors are taking us on inventive narrative journeys across all seven continents and through all four corners of consciousness.

Recommendations: I, the Divine by Rabih Alameddine, Welcome Home by Lucia Berlin, Naming the No-Name Woman by Jasmine An, The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Flavia MartinezFriday Reads: March 2019
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Birds of Passage: A Review

Birds of Passage Movie Poster

Movie directed by CIRO GUERRA and CRISTINA GALLEGO

Review by HANNAH GERSEN

 

From its joyous opening dance sequence to its melancholy ending, Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano) is unlike any movie you have seen about illegal drug trafficking. It’s a gangster movie that downplays violence, looks closely at attempts at peacemaking, and is centered on the fate of a mother and a daughter. Set in Colombia between the late 1960s and early 1980s, the film is told from the perspective of a Wayúu family who live in the arid, northern region of the country and become significant exporters of marijuana to the U.S. Their success in the drug trade brings wealth, but it also pulls them into a world of violence and greed that engulfs and divides their family and their community.

Whitney BrunoBirds of Passage: A Review
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LitFest Friday Reads: February 2019

It’s that time again—The Common and Amherst College will be hosting the fourth annual LitFest at the end of the month. For three days, February 28th to March 2nd, award-winning authors, poets, and critics will descend on Amherst to read, discuss, teach, and celebrate great writing. This year the lineup includes two National Book Award finalists, two Pulitzer Prize winners, and a New York Times bestseller. View the full list of participating writers and a calendar of events here.

The Common staff and interns are busily reading in anticipation of LitFest, so February’s Friday Reads feature is a selection of new work by the writers who will be visiting us in Amherst soon.

Recommendations: Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, and A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley.

 
book cover Where the Dead Sit Talking

Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson; recommended by Jennifer Acker, Founder and Editor in Chief

Where the Dead Sit Talking carries a profound emotional resonance all the way through, without ever being sentimental or maudlin. You could forgive the narrator, Sequoyah, a 15-year-old Cherokee boy, for being both: his mother is in jail and he is scarred, both physically and figuratively, from her neglect. Unlike a lot of fictional teenagers, Sequoyah is thoughtful, off-beat, and relatable, and he is in mourning over the death of his foster sister, Rosemary, with whom he had grown close while living with the Troutt family. There is such dignity and human consideration in Hobson’s magnetic prose, one is captivated from the beginning by these authentic teenagers and the rural Oklahoma landscape, and we want the best for him long after the book is over.

Manhattan Beach cover

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan; recommended by Julia Pike, Thomas E. Wood ’61 Fellow

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan begins with three characters standing at the edge of the water on a gray winter day in Brooklyn in 1934. Anna, the book’s protagonist, is eleven at the time, and has accompanied her father Eddie on a business call to Dexter Styles, a Brooklyn gangster. The opening scene is brief, but neatly sets up the rest of the book—the reader comes to expect the succinct, gorgeous prose Egan is known for, gets a sense for the book’s lasting preoccupation with the sea, and meets the three characters whose intertwining lives will form the net upon which the book rests.

Manhattan Beach takes readers on a journey through New York in the ’30s and ’40s, exploring the ins and outs of crime syndicates and high society, and delving deep into the difficulties faced by women working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Perhaps the book’s most impressive feat is the way it immerses the reader in vastly different spaces. We sense the weight of the East River above us, smell the musty inside of a diving suit, hear the pulse of music and chatter in a smoke-filled nightclub, gaze out at the endless ocean horizon. The depth of imagination and research necessary to bring the space of the book so fully to life is mind-boggling, but the book is so immersive that this thought didn’t even strike me until I’d reached the last page.

A Lucky Man cover

A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley; recommended by Emily Everett, Managing Editor

Jamel Brinkley shies away from nothing in these nine stories, but the thread of masculinity, in many forms, runs through all of them. The characters look inward and the reader follows, gazing in on their uncomfortable self-reflections: sex, aging, faith, failure, race, privilege, grief, and vulnerability. Brief, specific moments—a high school reunion, a commute to work, a summer camp trip to the country—offer a lens through which to view the whole length of a life, running back into the past and forward into the future from that scene. It’s almost dizzying. These are the types of stories that come to mind again and again, long after you’ve put down the book. I was never quite done with the characters, and so I still feel them moving through their lives—taking the subway to work, dozing in class, starting conversations they can’t quite bring themselves to finish.

6th extinction cover

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert; recommended by Elizabeth Witte, Associate Editor

“As soon as humans started using signs and symbols to represent the natural world, they pushed beyond the limits of that world.” It is here, in the final chapter of Kolbert’s primer on the rise and fall of the Anthropocene, that the human power to irrevocably change the world comes undeniably into focus. “If you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other species,” Kolbert continues, “you can picture a poacher in Africa carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap.” It is not that people don’t care, but that, in this present moment, “we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will be forever closed.”

In this chapter by chapter exploration-elegy for the extinction or near-extinction of individual species—golden frog, brown bat, Sumatran rhinoceros—Kolbert maps not only species-by-species loss, but the impact of these events upon vast and deep ecosystems. We stand in the shadow of rhinos and at the openings of caves piled with dead bats. We stand, too, in the shadows of the myriad scientists striving to understand what is happening, what will be—looking at microsystems to understand the larger, forthcoming picture. Kolbert brings forward not only the long-term evolutionary history that preceded and brought forth this present era but the evolution and acceptance of the very concept of extinction—that there were things here before us that are not here now—as shattering as the concept of “zero.”

For further reading, I suggest “Climate Signs” by Emily Raboteau, and “As We Approach the City,” a companion photo essay for The Common by Mik Awake—signs and symbols, indeed.

Emily EverettLitFest Friday Reads: February 2019
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Lost, Found, and Betrayed: A Review of Shirkers

Movie directed by SANDI TAN

Review by HANNAH GERSEN

 

In 1992, at age 19, novelist Sandi Tan wrote and starred in Shirkers, a feature-length road movie shot on the streets of Singapore. The title was inspired by Tan’s idea that in life, there were people who were neither movers nor shakers, but shirkers—those who evade responsibility and duty, escaping the confines of society. It starred Tan as S., a murderer and kidnapper on a mysterious mission to save children. One of Tan’s points of inspiration was J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. The plot didn’t matter as much as the mood, which Tan cultivated through carefully chosen locations, props, costumes, and music. Tan hired a friend to compose a soundtrack on his electric guitar, and hand-made many of her props, including a colorful board game that S. uses to plot her kidnappings. S.’s costume was a pink sailor shirt and blue knee-length shorts; she carried an old-fashioned camera on a strap, as well as a leather suitcase. “When I was eighteen,” Tan explains, “I thought you found freedom by building worlds inside your head.”

Isabel MeyersLost, Found, and Betrayed: A Review of Shirkers
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Friday Reads: November 2018

Curated by: SARAH WHELAN

Thank you to everyone who bought Issue 16, subscribed to receive a copy, or attended a launch event! To celebrate, this month we have three more contributors are here to give us peak at their bookshelves. Whether you’re in the mood for a classic novel, a contemporary essay collection, or an upcoming book of poems, our writers have you covered.

Recommendations: Hybrida by Tina Chang, Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner, Frantumaglia by Elena Ferrante.

Tina Chang

Flavia MartinezFriday Reads: November 2018
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Review: Oranges

Book by GARY ELDON PETER
Reviewed by JIMMY NEWBORG

The cover of "Oranges" by gary eldon peter

When I think of what it was like to grow up as a gay boy, I remember a particular kind of longing, a confusion over what to do with, or what might happen to, my heart. Most of us lived our earliest years without role models who think and love as we do, whether we looked to our own families or to TV and movies. As we came of age, for many of us, that confusion lingered but led to surprising, triumphant love once overcome. Gary Eldon Peter’s debut short story collection, Oranges, deftly portrays the life of its protagonist, Michael Dolin, as he navigates this trajectory from a childhood in Mason City, Iowa to adulthood in Minneapolis. 

Avery FarmerReview: Oranges
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Friday Reads: October 2018

Curated by SARAH WHELAN

October Friday Reads has arrived, which means Issue 16 is not far behind! This month, check out reading suggestions from a selection of contributors from this month’s upcoming issue. Then, be sure to preorder to get Issue 16 in your mailbox. 

Recommendations: Shameless Woman by Magdalena Gómez, Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination by Sarah Schulman, The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud, A Portrait of the Self as Nation: New and Selected Poems by Marilyn Chin, and This Little Art by Kate Briggs.

Shameless Woman 

Flavia MartinezFriday Reads: October 2018
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Review: The Distance Home

Book by PAULA SAUNDERS

Reviewed by TESS CALLAHANthe distance home cover

Willa Cather once said, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” I thought of those words while reading Paula Saunders’s cinematic debut novel, The Distance Home, which she has said is based on her fractured 1960s South Dakota childhood. Saunders draws from a deep well. 

The Distance Home joins such recent novels as Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, Joyce Carol Oates’ A Book of American Martyrs, Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth and Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton that explore family dysfunction. Saunders asks us to consider the violent underside of American drivenness and its impact on a family’s most vulnerable members.  

DoostiReview: The Distance Home
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Friday Reads: September 2018

Curated by: SARAH WHELAN

Though we love a quiet summer, nothing makes us happier than the hustle and bustle of a new semester. This month, we’re reaching for recommendations from the pillars of our academic community—the professors themselves. Please enjoy these recommendations from the Amherst College English Department!

Recommendations: Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford and Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

Flavia MartinezFriday Reads: September 2018
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Review: Alpha: Abidjan to Paris

Graphic novel written by BESSORA and illustrated by BARROUX. Translated from the French by SARAH ARDIZZONE.

Reviewed by JULIA LICHTBLAU

Abidjan to Paris
In 1994, the last year my husband and I lived in Paris, a Senegalese woman named Delphine cleaned our apartment, often bringing her baby girl. At some point, she asked us to help her resolve her immigration problems. The baby was a French citizen; Delphine had come to France to work for French expats returning from Dakar and been let go some years ago.

Emily EverettReview: Alpha: Abidjan to Paris
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