Friday Reads: October 2019

Curated by: SARAH WHELAN

Issue 18 is almost here! Pre-order your copy today to enjoy brand-new fiction, poetry, essays, and artwork arriving on October 28th. If waiting by the mailbox isn’t your thing, countdown to the magazine’s arrival with book recommendations from some of our Issue 18 contributors.

Recommendations: Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard by Cynthia L. Haven; Loves You: Poems by Sarah Gambito; A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa; The Farm by Joanne Ramos; and Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors.


Evolution of Desire

Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard by Cynthia L. Haven; recommended by Susan R. Troccolo (Nonfiction Contributor)

Cynthia L. Haven’s book, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is a compelling study of her mentor’s life’s work and an elegant homage to a man whose extraordinary intellectual force and drive for understanding necessarily probed Psychology, Philosophy, Theology, and Anthropology.

From Girard’s vivid early life in Avignon, France, through his professorships at Johns Hopkins and Stanford Universities and culminating in his reception into the illustrious Académie Française, Girard further developed what he saw as the rules governing the human condition; that what we call progress is often the movement of the herd towards some kind of extreme. And that our civilization—as it advanced from Paleolithic times onward—still demands violence, victimization, and scapegoating of “The Other.” Haven points out “while the U.S. has not suffered a vicious occupation, hatred has its own history.” She describes the haunting 1957 photo of young black Elizabeth Eckford, walking with dignity towards her newly segregated school in Little Rock, AK as hatred stains the faces of students taunting her. Girard, who died in 2015, wrote: “the emotion of the mob always looks the same.” Hailed as the “new Darwin of the Human Sciences,” René Girard examined the roles of violence and imitation (mimesis) as cornerstones of human culture.

Evolution of Desire is a memorably written biography of a distinguished thinker for our time.


Loves You

Loves You: Poems by Sarah Gambito; recommended by Chloe Martinez (Poetry Contributor)

“Invite at least 15 people. It’s okay if your apartment is small.” These are some of the instructions Sarah Gambito gives the reader at the start of Loves You, a collection of poems that are also recipes, that are also love songs, that are also prayers, and that are often centos, “patchwork poems” made up entirely of quotations. It’s okay to include all this, Gambito tells us, it’s okay to use everything around you in poems, whether it’s your bilingualism or going to a flea market with your grandfather or the colonial histories that have shaped your life. Leaving all that stuff in is, in fact, what will make your poems perfect.
“I wanted the poems to breathe prettily,” Gambito writes, “to be ecstatic and extroverted citizens.” Every time I reread Loves You, in which the sections are named after different categories of taste (umami, sour, salt, bitter, sweet) and are indeed many-flavored, complex, and rich, I feel included, invited in, empowered to be all my selves at once. I haven’t tried making the recipes yet, but I will.



A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa; recommended by Katherine Vaz (Fiction Contributor)

I recently finished A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, translated from Portuguese to English by Daniel Hahn for Archipelago Books. This novel was short-listed for the Man Booker and won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2017. Based on the true story of a woman who stayed closed-off in her apartment in Luanda during the struggle for independence, it’s an uncanny mix of true-magic and suspense and the onslaught of history. The plot is clear and strong. The language, the story itself—breathtaking. The confines of Ludo’s apartment end up containing the universe, in the way that the lines of a sonnet contain, due to the restriction of form, an explosion of richness. I’m about to read Maaza Mengiste’s new novel, Shadow King, and can’t wait—she is just glorious. What else? I read “The Loop,” a story in The New Yorker by J. Robert Lennon and loved it so much I typed it out so I could feel the sentences better. 


The Farm

The Farm by Joanne Ramos; recommended by Danielle Batalion Ola (Nonfiction Contributor)

October is Filipino American History Month, and to stay on theme I’ve been catching up on some of the latest additions to Filipino American literature. After tearing through Randy Ribay’s Patron Saints of Nothing (another book I’d recommend), I picked up Joanne Ramos’ debut novel The Farm.

The Farm is told through the eyes of four women who have been caught in the orbit of an upmarket surrogacy service in the Hudson Valley. The story begins with Jane, a meek Filipina immigrant who has a talent for making huge mistakes at the worst moments. After getting fired from her job as a baby nurse, Jane’s cousin Ate Evelyn suggests that she apply to be a surrogate mother (warmly referred to as “Hosts”) at a “gestational retreat” called Golden Oaks. Golden Oaks is the pet project of American-Dream and Kappa Kappa Gamma poster girl Mae, a Harvard Business School graduate who believes that outsourcing motherhood from the moment of conception will be The Next Big Thing among the global 1%. But Golden Oaks will only succeed if Mae is able to source the right Hosts—rule-abiding women like Jane, or white and educated Premium Hosts like Jane’s roommate Reagan.

Predictably, The Farm is often compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. But while Atwood’s dystopia feels like a dismal future looming over the horizon, The Farm feels as if it’s set in a late-capitalist world that’s already arrived. In Ramos’ own words, the novel takes place in our society “pushed forward just a few inches.” The searing familiarity of the logic that allows Golden Oaks to exist and succeed lingers long after you’ve put the book down, making for a provocative and chilling read.


Mirror, Shoulder, Signal

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors; recommended by Katherine Hill (Fiction Contributor)

Sonja is over forty, single, and finally learning to drive. Though she grew up on a Jutland farm, she has lived in Copenhagen, city of bicycles and public transportation, her entire adult life. And driving, it turns out, is quite difficult. It requires a comfort with regimentation that Sonja simply doesn’t have.

“You cannot make diagonal movements with the stick,” her driving instructor, Folke, explains. “You cannot go from second to third by taking a shortcut. You have to follow the construction of the gearbox.”

In another context, this might sound like practical advice. But in Dorthe Nors’s prose, translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra, Folke’s method is a challenge to Sonja’s entire way of being. Our heroine suffers from paroxysmal positional vertigo, she translates Swedish mystery novels into Danish, and she’s unable to communicate with her more conventional sister, Kate, back in Jutland. In every aspect of her life, Sonja is operating at diagonals. She’s not especially proud of herself—she’s putting herself through these driving lessons for a reason—but old habits are hard to break.

If Sonja can’t always see the value of her method, Nors is there to translate. Again and again, she represents Sonja’s thoughts as bracing diagonals, shortcutting from present to past and back again, often in the middle of a paragraph, or even in the middle of a sentence.

Here’s Sonja on the massage table: “Sonja can feel the muscles in her right upper arm relax a little. It’s Ellen’s hands, they’re patting her, and the fingers are massaging a spot behind her ear, and Sonja’s a woman in the middle of her life, she’s an adult now. She no longer needs for other people to always get along, and she can’t make them either. They’re not very accepting, they won’t open up. Kate, for instance, doesn’t answer the phone anymore.”

In Nors’s prose, the many contradictions of contemporary Nordic life rise to the surface, where they shimmer and invite further diagonal moves, across landscapes, ideologies, and emotions. The effect is kinetic, one of the more active reading experiences I’ve had in quite awhile. Clearly driving isn’t the only way a person can get where she needs to go. 


Pre-Order Issue 18 here. 

Friday Reads: October 2019

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