We’re charging into the new year reading slim volumes with grand ambitions. These books and their authors look to visual art, science, medicine, and history to pull literature—and with it the reader—in a new direction. We’re reading deeply in order to carve and reclaim human stories from disease, politics, the simplifying narratives of recorded history, and a monolithic literary canon. In 2016, read to embrace the “exquisite ache” of complexity with us!
I Watched You Disappearby Anya Krugovoy Silver, Charmed Particles by Chrissy Kolaya,High Dive by Jonathan Lee, Wide Sargasso Seaby Jean Rhys, Keeping an Eye Open: Essays on Artby Julian Barnes
At night I open all the shades so the dark comes in. This summer, I like the wide expanse of night. The full moon is high, and I see individual strands of onion grass in the shallow spot between the shores. Tomorrow we will learn that tonight’s moon is “blue,” a rare extra full in the cycle of moons. Truly, it is orange, and hovers low over the trees.
El Morro guards the northwestern tip of the old city, a headland with sparkling three-sixty views. Poised to fire cannons and guns against approaching sea invaders, the stone castle—six zigzagging levels, walls thick as hallways—was built by the Spanish starting in the early 1500s. El Morro protected Spain’s “porto rico,” the harbor crucial to any European empire seeking a foothold in the resource-rich Caribbean basin. But while El Morro protected San Juan from a seaside attack, the city’s eastern flank remained exposed to ambush by land, a weakness exploited by the British in 1598, then the Dutch in 1625. The Dutch succeeded in burning the city to the ground, but no one ever captured El Morro, whose now pleasant grassy lawn was, several times over, a bloody battlefield. After these near catastrophes, Spain began a second fort, Castillo San Cristóbal, at the city’s northeastern headland. Spain held Puerto Rico until the Spanish-American War, when the U.S. intervened in Cuba’s struggle for independence. During a few short, calamitous months in 1898, Spain lost to the U.S. its Pacific and Caribbean lands, including the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, and, temporarily, a nominally independent Cuba. An empire of nearly four hundred years dissolved like cobwebs in rain.
This month’s recommendations from The Common’s contributors and staff deal with the intersection of old and new, ancient and modern, on every level—personal, religious, political, even supernatural. Perhaps in the spirit of the season, we seem preoccupied by stories of intergenerational strife, love, and ambition. In their urgent focus on belief and truth-seeking, these books represent a literature of searching, a catalogue of quests across time and around the world.
To the End of June by Cris Beam, The Harafish by Naguib Mahfouz, We Others by Steven Millhauser, Hum by Jamaal May, High as the Horses’ Bridles by Scott Cheshire.
To get anywhere from the borgo—the walled-in cluster of medieval houses and skinny lanes connecting the castle, the church, and a tiny grassy square—one must go steeply downhill and then steeply up. Each morning, I choose a different high point from which to take in the magnetic hills of this corner of Lunigiana in northwest Tuscany, where friends have made a part-time home. Once I saw a handful of seniors out for a stroll, and I often say hello to a man in his eighties whose dog takes him out for jaunts, very slowly due to his heart trouble, but otherwise I encounter no one.
The sidewalk in front of my house unfurls enticingly to the north and south. Though its seams have buckled after months of gravel and salt, the walk still leads me to my neighbor’s porch, where I pull eggs and goat cheese from the fridge, take honey from the shelf, and leave cash in an unlocked box. The snow- and ice-narrowed path also still ferries a friend and me to the Bookmill, where we drink wine in the afternoon and squeeze up tight next to the stacks to peer down on the rushing creek below. If the walk’s covered overnight by a hard snow, Don blasts his snowblower through, the cranking assault of the motor a reasonable price to pay for the favor. For the magic of having one’s way into the world restored. That I have a sidewalk outside my door is a fairy-tale luxury, an enchantment.
The mind swings inward on itself in fear
Swayed towards nausea from each normal sign.
—derek walcott, “A Lesson for This Sunday”
On a lake, in the woods, in 1940, my grandparents built a cabin. One room, big stone fireplace, outdoor privy. They lived and worked outside New York City and spent summers in Maine, my grandmother often here alone with three young kids but no electricity, plumbing, or heat except the wood-burning fire. Surrounded by one hundred acres of no one. Up the road, there were neighbors: the Garnetts and the Hibberts—and the Savages, who lived up to their name, my grandmother used to tell me. They ate with their hands off the table’s pine boards. Mrs. Hibbert shielded her children from the Savage boys when they came around, sometimes en route to my grandparents’ place for supplies—whatever was lying around unprotected.
In a country so hot, and with such sugar hunger, you’d think the frozen dairy dessert field in Abu Dhabi would be crowded. But the United Arab Emirates is a relatively new country, with few home-grown stores, so imported chocolates and native dates dominate the sweet shops. When it comes to ice cream, a dozen kinds of Baskin Robbins is all there is. In grocery stores, there’s Häagen–Dazs too, but it’s the jagged, sickly pink BR that dominates each and every city superblock, including one on the ground floor of our Abu Dhabi apartment building—right next to the ATM.