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.
“Men’s bodies litter my family history,” Jesmyn Ward writes. “The pain of the women they left behind pulls them from the beyond and makes them appear as ghosts.” During the space of four years, years when Ward was away from home during the academic year (undergraduate at Stanford, MFA at the University of Michigan), five young black men in her community died, including her younger brother. This is a memoir of incalculable personal loss that also broadens the lens on these deaths, exploring the patterns of black male restlessness and disappointment in small Southern towns struggling against a history of racism and a poverty of opportunity. The disappearance of men from families further burdens their wives and eldest daughters, left to be the sole providers and caregivers for their families. As the cavern of grief widens and deepens to let in each newly fallen man, Ward makes us see how precarious these boys’ lives were to begin with. And how, “like all children, they were the children of history and place.” In simple, beautiful, meditative prose, Ward reveals her foundational place, DeLisle, Mississippi, rich with woods and mystery with an inexorable, magnetic pull. At the same time, she and others recognize that only with distance, with opportunities present elsewhere and beyond, can some of them ever attempt to survive.
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi; recommended by Emily Everett (Managing Editor)
I’m a long way from my academic years, but there was a word we used there that I sometimes long for: problematize. Jargony, sure, but it was the right word to title a certain kind of academic paper, which digs into and churns through and rips apart previously accepted ideas or impressions. I problematized secular humanism in the work of E.M. Forster for my master’s thesis. The beauty of the word is that you aren’t obligated to solve the problem. Your work is the creation of the problem. In Trust Exercise, Susan Choi creates such a problem, and drills down on it through three discreet sections. Each one shreds away something of the section before, but also adds a layer of confusion that deepens the problem instead of solving it.
Trust Exercise begins with a romance in a performing arts high school, between Sarah and David. It plays out, and then sours, through familiar and bizarre exercises in their acting class, under the tutelage of Mr. Kingsley, who crosses boundaries in a way that no one but the occasional parent seems to mind. Sarah suffers, and her peers do too; every raw emotion is felt physically and spills forth publicly. Where it feels like too much to the reader, that’s the point. Everything is too much at this age.
In the first section, their new movement teacher warns a sobbing Sarah, “Don’t turn away from the pain. When you are older, yes, you will be harder. That is a blessing and a curse.” And we do get to see a harder, older version of Sarah, and David, and a few others, when the book shifts into its second section. Here, Choi begins to problematize everything that came before, and then the third section turns the screw again. Right and wrong, agency and victimhood, child and adult, truth and fiction—there is no answer, but the search for it kept me reading. And then rereading, so I could decide what that gray areas in between meant, for the characters and for me. Out of everything, the problem that stays with me most is the issue of memory, and how we twist our own in the process of retelling—sometimes to protect others, and sometimes to protect our view of ourselves, creating the story of our lives that we can live with.
From the opening poem, “Enlist: Origin < German, to court, to woo,” poet and U.S. Army Veteran Karen Skolfield puts her readers on notice: Battle Dress takes on not only the soldier’s experience–a worthy subject in its own right–but also the very words used to name and describe those experiences. Like the opening, many of the poems start from or embed etymological or linguistic inquiries that sprawl like tentacles through the collection, lending new dimensions to received vocabulary. Skolfield picks up words like “grenade,” “rifle,” “war,” and “discharge,” and teases them apart so the reader must reconsider language itself: how our words come to signify stark realities; how–by reflecting on that language–we might render new perspectives on those realities. Or as Skolfield so deftly puts it, “how a place is a field / before it is forever a battlefield.” Skolfield also draws from source texts like the Soldiers’ Manual, Army Training (SMART) book and news articles, so that Battle Dress becomes a sort of collage-exploration-analysis of the cultural artifacts and implements of combat. Come for the incisive examination, stay for the wry humor and playfulness that Skolfield also manages to bring to the page as she probes essential histories and mythologies of warfare and the architecture and protocols of military training, including the experiences particular to a female soldier. Essential reading for the present moment, and for the foreseeable future.
The World as It Is by Ben Rhodes; recommended by Andy Ward (Amherst College Class of ’94, Executive Vice President and Publisher of Random House)
Ben Rhodes started writing this book four months after Barack Obama walked out of the White House for the last time. Needless to say, that is not a lot of time to process the previous eight years of one’s life, let alone eight years of one’s life spent in extremely close proximity to the President of the United States in a time of incredible upheaval and change. Those eight years spanned the opening of Cuba and Burma, the negotiation of the JPCA with Iran, the Arab spring, the birther controversy, Benghazi, the second rise of Putin, the hacking of the 2016 election, and the shattering ascendance of Donald Trump. And yet, over the course of six months of intensive writing and soul-searching, Ben Rhodes did exactly that: he managed to achieve perspective on his time in the White House, and produce the first full, inside account of an historic presidency. Ben was of course aided in this task by an almost superhuman work ethic and a brain that seems uniquely suited to taking complex geopolitical events, distilling them, and rendering them human scale, with character and scene and emotion.
I often go back and reread the prologue of this book, a moving, intimate scene in the back of the Presidential limousine, as Ben and Barack Obama drive to the airport in Lima, Peru, on Obama’s final trip abroad as President of the United States. I think of how rueful Obama seems, and how Ben describes him, with his iPad in his lap, staring out the window at the crowds that line the streets, and sensing, with the rise of Donald Trump, that something in our world had drastically changed. “What if we were wrong?” Obama asks. That moment kills me. Every time I read it, it kills me. And it’s the kind of thing Ben does so well in this book: use his privileged access to bring to vivid life the moments behind the moments – the ones that we will remember years from now, when we look back on the Obama presidency.