Here at Public Books, our editorial staff and contributors are hard at work to provide readers with thought-provoking articles. But when the workday is done, what is actually on our nightstands? Here we bring you, in our own words, a behind-the-scenes look at what we have been reading this month.
Editor in Chief
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
I first tried reading Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook in 1982. At the time, the novel and I were both around twenty years old—it was published in 1962, and I was published in 1966.
I was just discovering feminism, and thought that I should instantly identify with everything ever written by and about women. And in theory, the opening pages of the book should have appealed to me: they lovingly recount a conversation between two female friends, Anna and Molly, who clearly like each other. Hadn’t Virginia Woolf, in 1928, declared “Chloe liked Olivia” to be the most radically feminist sentence a novelist could pen?
Instead, I was so baffled by Lessing’s opening pages that I shut The Golden Notebook after five minutes and didn’t open it again until a few weeks ago. Now that the book and I have more history under our belts, it all makes so much more sense. As a callow 16-year old, I didn’t understand why a novel about a woman’s life was so fixated on decolonization and the decline of communism. Now I understand Lessing to be exploring an individual caught in the crosshairs of two kinds of violence, the political and the intimate. The Golden Notebook asks how a person can live ethically after her hopes and ideals have been crushed. I can’t put it down.
Ramon Saizarbitoria, Martutene, translated from the Basque by Aritz Branton
To create this monumental portrait of contemporary, post-ETA Basque Country, the author and his translator make use of some very thick description indeed, offering not only abundant contextual clues, but nearly blow-by-blow accounts of the thoughts and feelings of several middle-class professional natives, plus an American sociologist participant-observer to boot. Such comprehensive, articulate psychologizing facilitates a considerable amount of cultural as well as linguistic translation, which most readers, myself included, are sure to appreciate. (Basque is unrelated to any other known language.) Nonetheless, at more than eight hundred pages, this doubling-down on a traditional novel form has the air of both virtuosity and dutifulness, arrival and exhaustion.
Literary Fiction Section Editor
Anuk Arudpragasam, The Story of a Brief Marriage
A fortuitous recommendation led me to this extraordinary first novel, set over scarcely more than 12 hours in early 2009, at the end stages of the Sri Lankan civil war, in an encampment of Tamil refugees trapped between the sea and the advancing Sri Lankan army. Arudpragasam, a doctoral student in philosophy, writes with a dispassionate precision reminiscent of physician-writers like Chekhov; the novel’s condensed time frame, and the imminence of death it narrates, results in passages on embodiment—the acts of washing, sleeping, and above all breathing—that are phenomenologically convincing and bleakly unconsoling, while still somehow evoking tenderness. It’s war writing, but as gritty apperception rather than sensationalism.
Children’s & YA Literature Section Editor
Ellen Emerson White, A Season of Daring Greatly
As this year’s baseball season kicks into gear despite an unpopular president’s refusal to throw out the traditional first pitch, the time is ripe not only to read Ellen Emerson White’s compelling new YA novel A Season of Daring Greatly, but also to revisit her fantastic President’s Daughter series. Season gives us an illuminating behind-the-scenes tour of what it’s like to be a minor leaguer by putting us into the head of a young pitcher who gets drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates and fights through a challenging first season—partly because baseball is hard, but also because she happens to be a girl. Similarly, The President’s Daughter and its sequels usher us into a White House run by the first woman president, who has a complex but loving relationship with her perceptive, witty daughter. Emerson has an amazing ear for dialogue, and I can’t think of another YA author who is as gifted at focalizing third-person narration through the perspective of strong, funny, and observant female characters.
Art Section Editor
The Whitney Museum Biennial’s new wall texts for Open Casket (2016)
Such has been the controversy around Dana Schutz’s painting of a mutilated Emmett Till in his casket that the Whitney has, exceptionally, put two new labels next to it. Schutz’s painting, based on the infamous photograph that Till’s mother demanded the world see, is by a white woman, whose paintings now fetch as much as a million dollars in the sulfurous market for contemporary art. Polarized opinions have clustered toward extremes: demands for instant destruction, and demands for an absolute freedom of expression.
The exceptionally long but conventionally polite label texts, full of mildly good intentions, one by the Biennial’s curators, the other by the artist, make me wonder whether we could imagine a more forceful middle ground. What about an assertion that the meaning of some works of art cannot be completely understood until they have been seen in person? Schutz’s painting is one of those. No reproduction conveys its accusatory power. Photographs flatten and neutralize the actual, coagulated abscesses of paint that express what was done to Emmett Till, what the United States of America has done to its black citizens. Schutz’s terrifying surgical cut through her medium, exposing layer after layer of revolting matter, requires you to witness. Schutz concludes her text: “This painting has never been for sale. It never will be.” If she wants to honor that claim, she should immediately give the painting to a museum. Museums were invented for such ideal purposes: to be civic spaces in which money-profit motives can occasionally be suspended, in which whole communities gain access to their past. And I have qualms about the Whitney charging as much as $25 for admission right now. Every once in while, a museum should remind us what it is best for.
Sexuality Section Editor
Rabih Alameddine, The Angel of History
“I am not proud, I never was, and it didn’t get better, not for me.” Jacob is a poet who spends his days temping in a law firm and his nights talking to his dead boyfriend, and to their dead friends, and to Satan and 14 saints. These latest visits have caused him to seek professional help, and it’s in the waiting room of a public psychiatric clinic in San Francisco that Rabih Alameddine’s novel The Angel of History is set. The action is farther flung, however, since it follows Jacob (born Ya‘qub) in his wanderings from the Yemeni desert to Cairo to Beirut to Stockholm. A “congenital immigrant,” Jacob has already lost several homelands, most of his possessions, and his mother by the time he arrives in California, but he has a lot more losing in store. Satan arrives to help him remember the dead, but San Francisco, now populated by white and smiling gay boys, is a city built on forgetting, and with the rise of drone warfare the US has finally perfected the art of killing at a distance. Melancholy and profane, The Angel of History takes on the messy work of counter-memory. Those disappointed by the clean white lines of the New York City AIDS Memorial may find solace in Jacob’s final act, writing his memories with a brown Sharpie on the shop windows and apartment doors of the city. In contrast to Whitman’s “Song of Myself” carved in granite at the official memorial, a more demotic text: “There is where I met you”; “Chris lived here”; “I sucked a guy’s dick in here.”
Alexandra Vialla Méndez
José Augustín, Ciudades desiertas
I picked up this 1982 novel because I learned that a movie based on it had come out recently: Me estás matando, Susana. The book tells the story of Susana, a writer from Mexico City, who takes a scholarship to spend some months at a program for international writers in “Arcadia,” a sleepy Midwestern town. In so doing she escapes from an unsatisfying marriage—or so she thinks. But her husband Eligio, a fun-loving actor, comes chasing after her. The novel explores the relationship between the two, Mexican machismo, and what is described as the extreme superficiality and drabness of American society. In parts the story is hilarious and I found myself charmed by Eligio’s character and the novel’s playful tone. And yet I couldn’t forgive Eligio for having hijacked the story, or for his cowardly, faux-heroic, machista behavior (despite the ridicule he incurs, and despite the fact that Elena Poniatowska has declared this book to be anti-machista). In this book Agustín’s witty and perceptive (if somewhat dated and overblown) critique of American society accompanies a relationship story that is, more than anything else, profoundly unsettling.
Dave Eggers, The Circle
This month, in addition to still having the chance to see Emma Watson on the big screen as Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, audiences will get to see her as the industrious Mae in The Circle, the film adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel of the same name. In anticipation, I’m reading Eggers’ dystopian tale, which follows Mae’s professional and personal descent into the cult-like world of the Circle, a thinly veiled Google-esque company that promises to make life better for her, her family, and all of humankind through its technological advances and inventions. Promises of the future entail the loss of privacy, intimacy, and connection in the present, an exchange Mae and her colleagues are all too eager to make. The Circle is very on the nose in its attempt to be a mirror for its readers in the contemporary moment. That said, I tend to have the opposite intended reaction to cultural works that function as social and political commentary—after Blackfish, I wanted to pursue a career as a sea mammal trainer, UnREAL made me wish I was a reality television show producer, and, in all honesty, The Circle has me lamenting the fact I did not try to get a job with Google after graduating college. Despite its tiring cautionary-tale mode and the fact that Tom Hanks is also in the film adaptation, I’ll definitely be finishing the novel and seeing it in theaters—two activities where I still get to be unplugged (a Circle sin!).
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
I vaguely remember skimming this at some point in my teenage years, knowing that this was an Important Book. But its story didn’t stick, perhaps because of a resistance to all assigned reading in high school. So when I picked it up again in the wake of the think pieces coming out in anticipation of the Hulu series (beginning April 26), I wasn’t sure what to expect.
What I got was crying ugly tears on airplanes, on the subway, in coffee shops. Maybe I shouldn’t have read it so often in public? The narrative force of Atwood’s prose is almost overwhelming. The voice feels as pressing, urgent, and fresh as anything possibly can. The book is an Important Book for a reason. It seems obvious to read in the current political moment, but the experience of doing so is anything but trite. Do yourself a favor and read it again too.
Sahar Ishitiaque Ullah
Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes, translated from the Arabic and with an introduction by Michael Sells
In reference to the motif of the aṭlāl or abandoned desert campsite over which the poet-lover weeps in the prelude to the Arabic ode, Desert Tracings is an incredible translation of six Arabic odes considered to be among the sixth century Mu`allaqat or “Hanging Odes.” Legends narrate that the Mu`allaqāt were hung on the walls of the Ka’bah in Makkah in order to honor the most eloquent poets of the Arabian peninsula. Sells offers a short introduction to each poet and poem, including insightful comments about the poem’s structure and themes, that both makes the poetry more accessible for those unfamiliar with ancient Arabic poetry and raises questions for connoisseurs. Mediated by the English language in less than 80 pages, the poetry’s images remain strikingly vivid, its sentiments palpable, the tone resonant.