Early on in Empire of Glass, the novel’s American narrator offers fair warning that what follows will not be straightforward: “So much of what I’m telling you is already reimagined, reconfigured so convex angles are made concave, mirrors reflecting other mirrors reflecting an uncertain, setting sun.” That includes her name, Lao K (or “Familiar K”), a nickname her Chinese homestay family gave to replace “a long, complicated name we could never pronounce.”
It felt foreordained to open this short story collection by the Norwegian writer Gunnhild Øyehaug and find IKEA on the first page, as in: “…park the car outside IKEA.” IKEA, now based in the Netherlands, originated in Sweden, but to many foreigners, it personifies Scandinavia—pleasant and unthreatening. “Blah, how boring,” was my first thought. Then, trying to stave off disappointment at being welcomed by the all-too-familiar global brand, I told myself, “Well, I guess IKEA did start somewhere nearby. Perhaps, Scandinavians have a particular attachment to clean lines.” (Nervous laughter.) I know that stereotyping is a form of blindness; in practice, my desire for novelty trips me up and leads to overly broad generalizations. Like a tourist, I had to remind myself to check my expectations at the airport.
Outside Is the Ocean, Matthew Lansburgh’s debut short story collection, is a particularly complete and satisfying example of the linked genre. The stories reveal a long, novelistic arc, while the broken chronology captures the fragmented personality of the central character, Heike, and the chaos she sows.
A gentile, post-war German immigrant to California, Heike speaks and thinks in a German-inflected English that’s full of mangled idioms—as in the opening line of the book: “Al gives me zero.” Or: “She thinks the world will give her French toast on a silver platter.” Heike disappoints and infuriates everyone, but is perversely optimistic, which gives many of the stories a certain hilarity, even the saddest ones. Humor enables Heike’s gay son, Stewart, a literature professor, and her adopted, one-armed Russian daughter, Galina, to survive her boundless narcissism and neediness.
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet is complete with The Story of the Lost Child,making it possible to see the whole structure, which reveals itself in layers like Naples itself, where former cityscapes are buried by time, political violence, and natural disasters. Reading this final volume, it’s easy to forget that the first book, My Brilliant Friend, frames the entire work as a mystery—aside from the much-discussed secrecy of Ferrante, who uses a pen name, allows no photographs, and, with few exceptions, will only be interviewed via email or telephone. With this volume, Ferrante reminds us again that a question of authorship is embedded into the narrative—who is telling this story? Lila or Elena?
I first encountered Tusiata Avia’s work at the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia just after she published her first book, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt. Her mocking voice, sometimes full of mimicry, sometimes searingly sarcastic, often aims at neocolonialism and globalization. Samoan/Palagi, Avia’s mother is descended from the Europeans who first colonized New Zealand and her father, a stunt man, was among the first wave of Samoan immigrants to New Zealand in the 1950s. For seven years before Avia’s second book arrived—Bloodclot, about Nafanua, the Samoan goddess of war, who leaves the underworld to wander the earth as a half-caste girl—she traveled from Siberia to Sudan and read or performed her work in places like Moscow, Jerusalem and Vienna. Last year Avia was poet-in-residence with Simon Armitage at the International Poetry Studies Institute in Australia. This year Wild Dogs Under My Skin was adapted as a theater event for six women and received rave reviews. The recipient of a Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Pacific Writer’s Residency, the Ursula Bethel Writer in Residence at University of Canterbury, a residency at the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies in Christchurch, she won the 2013 Janet Frame Literary Trust Award. Truly an international poet with an indigenous Pacifika frame of reference, in Fale Aitu | Spirit House, Avia writes with a visceral, political, spare and passionate authority of someone who has seen the world.
November’s Friday Reads features selections from three Issue 12 contributors: poet Max Freeman, translator Ostap Kin, and essayist Anna Badkhen. All three are reading and recommending poetry this month, verses of otherness, foreigness, complexity, and intelligence. In this month, in this year — when the easy, the soundbitey, and the distorted seem to dominate us — we’re happy to endorse these thoughtful recommendations.
Chord by Rick Barot, Orchard Lamps by Ivan Drach, Garden Time by W.S. Merwin, and Dark Archives by Andre Bradley.
In celebration of the release of Issue 12, October’s Friday Reads recommendations come from four of our Issue 12 contributors—poets, essayists, storytellers. As you might then expect, the breadth of their reading stretches wide: stories set in California on the brink of apocalypse or a bizarre state-sponsored research lab; poems rewoven eerily from dark fairy tales, or mixed from myth and history. If you hurry, you might just have time to read them all before Issue 12 hits your mailbox.
The Anathemata by David Jones, In an I by Popahna Brandes, Gold Fame Citrusby Claire Vaye Watkins, and The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison by Maggie Smith.
This month’s Friday Reads recommendations will take you from an Amsterdam dinner table to a New York City hospital room, and from 1970s Sarajevo to modern-day Seoul. These captivating books highlight conflict and memory in equal parts, and the results are certainly worth a spot on your fall reading list.
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, The Dinner by Herman Koch, The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon, and The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
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
“One late afternoon in June of 1880, a rather famous woman sat in a railroad carriage traveling toward Venice with her new husband, a handsome young man twenty years her junior.” Thus begins this accomplished tale, in which the honeymoon of a sixty-year-old bride is the frame for the life story of a woman who defied convention but had no wish to.
She is ruled, from the start, by her craving to be accepted, since her mother rejects all that is innate to her. The little girl just can’t sit and sew or keep her hair neat; exemplifying the wild passion her mother hates, the girl chops it off. The child seeks her brother’s approval as much as her mother’s, but his tolerance for his little sister is used up when she forgets to take care of his prized rabbits as promised, and he comes home from school to find them dead.