All posts tagged: Elizabeth Witte

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

Friday Reads: August 2016



Our recommended books this month explore unfamiliar territory, in both form and subject. We’re reading formats that do something different with time, place, and space on the page, through writing that is fiercely modern and refreshingly curious.



The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Lui, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, That That by Ken Mikolowski, and Shining Sea by Anne Korkeakivi

Olivia ZhengFriday Reads: August 2016

The Hands That Touched It Last

Our flight to Boston had been delayed five hours for operational reasons, we were told. The Istanbul airport was hot and thick with people, a hectic crossroads from which we all hoped we’d escape, eventually. We’d been there three hours already—essentially nothing, judging by the quantity of sleeping bodies slumped against each other on the ground, splayed across chairs, face down on tables. We paced the warm corridors, sticky with traveler sweat, past the food court, mosque, flooded bathrooms, Victoria’s Secret. We slumped over a table eating savory pastries, watching others in similar states of surrender.

Olivia ZhengThe Hands That Touched It Last

Linefork: In Proximity to a Movie in the Making




A familiar sound comes from the other room. A voice—from Kentucky; from a monitor speaker, ten feet away in Massachusetts. I hear it in the kitchen. A clip of speech, a cadence heard again and for not the last time. Open floor plan living: all sounds permeate. Racket of chickens, dogs, lilting voice, banjo.

A film, incomplete—still very much its audio-visual pieces. We cohabitate, this thing and I. I am not the maker, though he lives here too. I am adjacent to the making.

I was there when it happened. The beginnings of this thing that has now sprawled through our lives. That was three years ago, on a summer road trip from Boston to points south, stopping to see friends in Charlottesville, Nashville, Memphis, before making our way back north.

Olivia ZhengLinefork: In Proximity to a Movie in the Making

On Display

In the cabinet in the atrium outside my office is a glass display case that holds, among other things, a beautiful kidney shaped vessel, its patina smoothed by use. Label: “Brass Pus Basin.” It is an object to stand and stare down at for a while, intentionally or idly, to move on from and return to, to see in passing. Nearby, as part of an exhibit on bloodletting and cupping, are 18th- and 19th-century thumb lancets with their sharp little blades and tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl handles. In the next case over, a collection of 40 or so calculi (“bladder stones”) of varied size and shape, all disturbingly large. This is the Warren Anatomical Museum, at Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library, where “the dead teach the living.”

Olivia ZhengOn Display

Notes from a Box


I’m not really sure why it’s all so illegible now. The ink fades to nothing midway through and is gasping for breath where it’s visible at all. I have a vague recollection of the page living on one side of the fridge for a time (reminding us of its existence)—so perhaps the sunlight hit it just so. Or perhaps the pen itself was too weak, not up to the task.

Olivia ZhengNotes from a Box

Closed for Good

Lobster in the Rough is over. On a given summer day we can no longer pull off the highway on the Maine side of the border into the parking lot alongside dusty motorcycles, cars, and trucks, and take a seat at the bar or a table beside the bocce courts, inhale lobster rolls in the sun and have a drink among locals and interlopers. This was a place of tribute bands, ladies nights, and horseshoe pits. A place we visited any chance we had heading north or south, a place we returned to, the origin of memories and oft-repeated phrases overheard in the midst of one fantastic day or another. Its closing confirms or reaffirms that these sorts of things—the places we’ve come to depend on to be there as some small but increasingly significant facet of our lives—are going away.This link—to the past we have lived and a past that is hinted at by the place itself—is gone. It’s not a loss of food (certainly there are other shacks within a mile radius that could sufficiently do the job), but a loss of sustenance nonetheless—a shift in atmosphere. Sometime this past winter it transitioned from closed for the season to closed permanently. It’s for sale.

Olivia ZhengClosed for Good

Friday Reads: May 2015

Olivia ZhengFriday Reads: May 2015

Chart Showing the Ratio of Church Accommodation to the Population Over 10 Years of Age

colored chart

We were on the small roads that sometimes turn gravel, sometimes dead end, when we found it. This was Vermont, about ten years ago, our first road trip together: a circuit of swimming holes, picnics, and stops for general store ice cream. We passed a series of “Take Back Vermont” signs. Somewhere along the way we came upon the man, who by all appearances seemed to be a Hare Krishna devotee, having a yard sale. It was here in the sunny warm greenness that we found THE PEOPLE’S CYCLOPEDIA OF UNIVERSAL KNOWLEDGE, WITH NUMEROUS APPENDIXES INVALUABLE FOR REFERENCE IN ALL DEPARTMENTS OF INDUSTRIAL LIFE. BROUGHT DOWN TO THE YEAR 1885.

Olivia ZhengChart Showing the Ratio of Church Accommodation to the Population Over 10 Years of Age