All posts tagged: 2019

From The Study of Animal Languages

By LINDSAY STERN

Animal_Languages

“All my life I’ve been waiting,” says my father-in-law, through the stall door. We have stopped at a rest area along the interstate, halfway between our homes. I would meet him back in the car, if only he would stop waxing poetic.

“Frank?” I face the mirror, smoothing the hair over my thinning spot. “I’ll be—”

“First for school to end,” he interrupts. “Then for my twenties, then for success. Marriage, children, et cetera. For them to leave. For their children. Then the waiting became less conspicuous. Waiting for the cry of boiled water. For the paper. For spring. It took a mighty long time to understand that what I’d been waiting for wasn’t each thing, actually, but the chance to wait for whatever came next.”

Griffin LessellFrom The Study of Animal Languages
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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 by Mik Awake, forthcoming in our pages—signs and symbols, indeed.

Emily EverettLitFest Friday Reads: February 2019
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From Where the Dead Sit Talking


Excerpt from the novel Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson

cover of where the dead sit talking with a bird drawn on it

CHAPTER ONE 

     I have been unhappy for many years now. 

     I have seen in the faces of young people walking down the street a resemblance to people who died during my childhood. 

Julia PikeFrom Where the Dead Sit Talking
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Multiple Geographies: an Interview with Helen Benedict

MELODY NIXON interviews HELEN BENEDICT

Helen Benedict

Helen Benedict is the author of seven novels and five works of nonfiction. A professor of journalism at Columbia University, Benedict spends her time between New York City and upstate New York, where her latest novel, Wolf Season, is set—though the characters’ lives encompass Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the US. Wolf Seasonwas selected as a 2018 Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association.

As the seasons changed from fall to winter, Melody Nixon spoke with Benedict about her newest book, the “effects of war on the human heart,” Benedict’s path to social justice, and the way forward with the crisis of tolerance.

Emily EverettMultiple Geographies: an Interview with Helen Benedict
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Ask a Local: Mara Pastor, Ponce, Puerto Rico

 

Ponce Carnaval

Answers appear first in Spanish, and next in English translation.

Your name: Mara Pastor

Current city or town: Ponce, Puerto Rico

How long have you lived here: Desde enero del 2016. / Since January 2016.

Three words to describe the climate: Caluroso. Húmedo. Mucho. / Hot. Humid. Very.

Griffin LessellAsk a Local: Mara Pastor, Ponce, Puerto Rico
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Ann Arbor Diptych

By AVERY FARMER

Picture of downtown Ann Arbor, MI

Elbel Field, 2018.

Like an orgy—or a fight. Legs collide with legs; strangers struggle around each other, into each other. A collective gasp clutches them all together. One, shirtless, leads the ball down the field, stumbles, and loses control of it. Now the ball leads him and leads his opponent into him. The two collide without a sound, the crash dampened by their flesh. Everybody stops to watch them battle for the ball. When it spills free, the first man gains control and rolls it across an invisible line between two heaps of t-shirts. Half the players cry in ecstasy. Half sigh in frustration. For a few seconds before this, nobody breathed at all.

Avery FarmerAnn Arbor Diptych
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