Reviews

Reading Black Voices: TC Staff Picks

This is the first in a series of features highlighting the Black writers our editors and staff have been reading. To read The Common’s statement in support of the nationwide protests against anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and police brutality, click here.

Recommendations: water & power by Steven Dunn, King Me by Roger Reeves, and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Book cover of water & power

water & power by Steven Dunn

Recommended by Elly Hong, Thomas E. Wood ’61 Fellow

The cover of water & power calls it a novel. Both author Steven Dunn and the book’s narrator describe it as a “fictional ethnography,” and this broader term is perhaps a more fitting description of a book that defies classification. Most of water & power resembles a novella in flash, written in prose that comes in bursts no longer than a page. Yet there are also moments of poetry, as well as photographs, found documents, and collages. The book’s dynamic structure was immediately striking, and both its form and its content continued to stun me as I read.

Reading Black Voices: TC Staff Picks
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Review: Then the Fish Swallowed Him by Amir Ahmadi Arian

Book by AMIR AHMADI ARIAN

Reviewed by FEROZ RATHER

Review: Then the Fish Swallowed Him by Amir Ahmadi Arian

Amir Ahmadi Arians Then the Fish Swallowed Him is an unswerving portrayal of an individuals tormenting journey to self-realization in a totalitarian theocracy. By reproducing the minutiae of one mans stolen solitude, Arian has created a powerful critique not only of the Mullah-dominated politics of Iran, but also of the very nature of political life in this society. Arian, an Iranian novelist, translator, and journalist who currently lives in New York City, has in the past translated novels by E.L. Doctorow, Paul Aster, P.D. James, and Cormac McCarthy to Farsi, as well as written two novels and a book of nonfiction in his native language. Released in March of 2020 in the U.S., Then the Fish Swallowed Him is Arians debut novel in English.

The book begins amidst a raucous union strike near the Jannatabad Bus Terminal in the northwestern part of Tehran, when middle-aged bus driver Yunus Turabi watches Mahmoud Ahmadinejads plainclothes militiathe Basijis, a zealous bunch of young Revolutionary Armed Guardsviolently beat a woman. As the wife of an imprisoned activist is kicked in the ribs and flung on the ground, Yunuss fellow bus drivers scream and shout. During the ensuing clash with the police, who are shielding the Basijis, Yunus is jolted out of his humdrum existence and is spurred to action by his colleagues protests. But his punches, ecstatic and involuntary, are warded off with the blows of an electric baton. Numbed, he tears away from the crowd and hides on the roof of an empty bus.

Review: Then the Fish Swallowed Him by Amir Ahmadi Arian
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Review: Klotsvog by Margarita Khemlin

Novel by MARGARITA KHEMLIN

Translated from the Russian by LISA C. HAYDEN

Reviewed by OLGA ZILBERBOURG

Cover of Klostvog

The year is 1950 in Kiev. A twenty-year-old college student, Maya Klotsvog, falls in love with her professor, Viktor Pavlovich. He’s eight years older and married. One day, the professor’s wife, Darina Dmitrievna, catches up with Maya at the tram stop and reveals that her husband loves Maya and has asked for a divorce. He wants to marry Maya and have children with her. But Darina Dmitrievna adds something else: “You’re Jewish and your children would be half Jewish. And you yourself know what the situation is now. You read the papers, listen to the radio. And then that shadow would fall on Viktor Pavlovich himself, too. Anything can happen. Don’t you agree? Babi Yar over there is full of half-bloods.”

Review: Klotsvog by Margarita Khemlin
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Review: Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

Book by MARCELO HERNANDEZ CASTILLO

Review by MINDY MISENER

cover

“There were moments when I didn’t need to tell my body how to move,” poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo writes in the opening passage of his memoir, Children of the Land. He’s introducing a scene in which armed ICE agents arrive at his house. He’s a senior in high school. The agents are looking for his father, who isn’t there. They leave. Yet their presence, a longstanding threat finally realized, creates a shift. Hernandez Castillo can no longer act without thinking. He explains, “Even laughter required some kind of effort. I had to remind myself: this is funny, this is how you laugh—laugh now, laugh hard, spit out your food.”

Review: Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
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Film Review: First Cow

Directed by KELLY REICHARDT

Based on the novel The Half-Life by JONATHAN RAYMOND

Review by HANNAH GERSEN

 

The plain title of Kelly Reichardt’s eighth feature film belies a richlydetailed period piece set in 1820s Oregon Territory. But before immersing you in the past, Reichart opens in the present, with a shot of a large industrial ship making its way down the Willamette River. Along a piece of undeveloped shoreline, a woman and her dog are walking when the dog’s playful digging uncovers a human skull. Curious, the woman continues digging to reveal two full skeletons lying next to each another. As is typical of a Reichardt movie, this action unfolds wordlessly but with attention to the sounds of the natural world: the chirping of nearby birds, the dog’s panting and scuffling paws, and the river flowing by. This quiet, observational approach makes the discovery of two skeletons feel interesting, rather than ominous. However, I must admit that what I found most arresting about this scene was a lightweight pink scarf that the woman was wearing tied around her neck in a loose bow. It was the only warm color in a scene dominated by grays, blues, and greens, and as the woman’s scarf fluttered in breeze, I felt that it, as well as the skeletons, had a secret meaning.

My question about the scarf was partially answered in the next scene, a close-up of dirty hands plucking mushrooms from a damp forest floor. At first I thought we were keeping company with the same woman who had exhumed the skeletons, but as the camera panned out to reveal the foragers identity, I realized we had fallen back in time. The forager was a man with a scraggly beard, rumpled hat, and old-fashioned menswear made of sturdy brown cloth. Around his neck was a red kerchief so faded and dirty it appeared pale pink. This echo in costuming and gesture not only helps to connect the characters across time, but is also a gentle suggestion that our way of life might be more connected to the past than we realize.

Film Review: First Cow
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LitFest Friday Reads: January 2020

Curated by: SARAH WHELAN

Mark your calendars! For the fifth year, The Common is preparing for LitFest, a weekend of events to recognize and celebrate contemporary literature. In conjunction with the National Book Awards and Amherst College, The Common will celebrate extraordinary voices such as Jesmyn Ward, Susan Choi, Laila Lalami, and Ben Rhodes.

LitFest will be held on the campus of Amherst College from February 27th through March 1st. For more details, visit the LitFest website. But first, read on for recommendations from the participating authors.

Recommendations: Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward; Trust Exercise by Susan Choi; Battle Dress by Karen Skolfield, and The World as It Is by Ben Rhodes.

LitFest Friday Reads: January 2020
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Little Women: A Review

Image of Little Women poster

Movie directed by GRETA GERWIG

Review by HANNAH GERSEN

I have friends who cried their way through Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, and I expected that I would, too, but I spent much of my first viewing in a state of mild agitation. I had re-read the novel a few days before seeing the film, and was distracted as I tried to figure out the mechanics of Gerwig’s complex temporal structure. Little Women was originally published as two books: Little Women and Good Wives, and Gerwig braids together these two volumes, going back and forth between past and present. As with Gerwig’s debut feature Lady Bird, the pace is galloping. Not only are there two separate timelines, Gerwig cuts rapidly between characters and locations within each timeline.

Little Women: A Review
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Review: Like Water by Olga Zilberbourg

Book by OLGA ZILBERBOURG

Review by JEN HINST-WHITE

Cover of Like Water

When I was nineteen and trying my hand at novel-writing for the first time, I found myself struggling with a story that alternated between two protagonists, a mother and a daughter. After reading my newest batch of pages, a beloved mentor observed that only the daughter was coming to life on the page. “There has to be more to this other woman than her role as a mother,” she said. I realize now that she was speaking from her own recent, still-raw experiences. “Try going back in time with the mother character,” she said. “Write a scene where she’s twenty, before she has a child, and see what she does. When you become a mother, your old self doesn’t disappear. All the parts of you that were there before are still there.”

Review: Like Water by Olga Zilberbourg
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Friday Reads: December 2019

Curated by SARAH WHELAN

Here it is, the final Friday Reads of the decade! This month, we’re sharing the audiobooks that have entertained and challenged us this year. If you’d like even more listening material, check out The Common Online’s Poetry Recordings here

Recommendations: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett; The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks; Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt; All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Friday Reads: December 2019
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Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A Review

Movie directed by CÉLINE SCIAMMA

Review by HANNAH GERSEN

Movie poster of woman on fire

In 1770, Brittany, France, a young female painter, Marianne, is hired to paint a wedding portrait of a noblewoman. But the assignment is unusual: she must make the painting in secret because the bride, Héloïse, is reluctant to marry. Héloïse and her mother live in an isolated seaside estate, and her mother explains to the young painter that the portrait is necessary to entice the bridegroom, who lives in Milan. Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) is arrestingly beautiful, and I can imagine many movies that might begin with the groom’s approving gaze upon receiving Héloïse’s portrait, kicking off a storyline that would take viewers into Milanese high society. But Portrait of a Lady on Fire instead focuses on the two weeks that Héloïse and Marianne spend together in a nearly empty house by the sea (the bridegroom in question never appears on screen). Written and directed by French filmmaker Céline Sciamma, and with a nearly all-female cast, Portrait is both a romantic story of two people falling in love, and a sensitive depiction of a female painter’s life and artistic practice in the eighteenth century.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire: A Review
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