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 (and watching) this month.
Caitlin M. Zaloom
Editor in Chief
Paula S. Fass, The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting From Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child
My ten-year-old son likes to remind me that I’m old. Sometimes he says it straight up. Sometimes he simply rolls his eyes as I massacre pop lyrics or display apparently stuffy tastes in boys’ hairstyles. Paula Fass’s history of parenting soothes the burn a bit. After reading her fascinating book I can see that his disavowals extend a long tradition of American childhood independence. Since the Revolution, those parents with the freedom to do so fostered their children’s novel histories and habits. And, like me, have worried over the rejection that they stoked. Time to turn up the jazz and give him something new to rebel against.
Jérôme Ferrari, The Principle, translated from the French by Howard Curtis
I’m not sure this ruminative epistle addressed to the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg is exactly a novel, nor whether trying to follow arguments about quantum mechanics as I drift off to sleep is really worthwhile, but Ferrari, while occasionally slipping into portentousness, consistently impresses through his ability to wring both flashes of lyrical brilliance and a moving examination of conscience from his unlikely source. The book also appears to have inspired some pretty far-out dreams.
Keisha N. Blain
Global Black History
Robyn C. Spencer, The Revolution Has Come: Black Power, Gender, and the Black Panther Party in Oakland
Established by college students Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland, CA, in 1966, the Black Panther Party (BPP) was the largest and arguably most influential black revolutionary organization of the 20th century. During the late 1960s, thousands of young black men and women joined the Party, dedicating their lives to protecting black communities and combating police brutality. Spencer explores the historical significance and enduring legacies of the Party, paying close attention to women’s contributions and the dynamics of gender in the movement. Drawing on an array of sources, including archival records, FBI records, newspapers, and oral interviews, the book highlights the complexities of the movement and captures the Party’s national and global impact. Understanding the history of the BPP sheds light on contemporary global black social movements, including continuing struggles against state-sanctioned violence.
Lives & Histories
Phillipe Sands, East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity”
With the paciness of a detective story and the poignancy of a family memoir, Sands winds an account of individual lives around the origin stories of a competing pair of concepts aired at the Nuremberg trials: “crimes against humanity” and “genocide.” These two foundational notions of international law had their origins, as did Sands’ mother’s family, in the town of Lviv—or Lemberg, Lwów, or Lvov, depending on the occupying force of the moment. Although both “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” sought to undercut the magisterial sovereignty of the state, they relied on different legal underpinnings. Should the prosecution of Nazi crimes take the sanctity of the individual life as its entry point or focus instead upon the attempt to annihilate an entire group of people? A barrister himself, involved in the Pinochet and Rwanda cases among others, Sands’ sympathies are with “crimes against humanity” as the more pragmatic approach. Fittingly, his humane book derives much of its force from its own championing of the individuals whose lives he recounts in these pages.
Children’s & YA Fiction
Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley, I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark
Is it too obvious of me, at this political moment, to single out and praise a picture book that treats civil dissent as both an ethical necessity and a cause for celebration? I think not. In this sober yet exuberant picture book about the life and opinions of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Levy and Baddeley chronicle how the future Supreme Court justice “resisted and persisted” the pervasive sexism and anti-Semitism that she faced as a Jewish girl growing up in a culture in which few women went to college and “No Dogs or Jews Allowed!” signs were not uncommon. Appropriately for a narrative about the power of the written word to inflict and undo injustice, Baddeley treats Levy’s text as too lively to remain sequestered in standard paragraphs. Instead, certain phrases leap around the page like circus banners, sending off sparks of excitement, yellow lines that remind us that Ginsburg “makes her mark” with a pen, not a sword.
Originalism, professed by Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, put the Constitution of the United States on my nightstand. Our founding fathers were so convinced immigrants would govern the new nation that they decreed intervals of only seven years for representatives and nine for senators between arrival and office. Impeachment seemed probable enough for its mechanisms to be introduced by Article 1, Section 2. The most original qualities of the Constitution are its skeptical rejection of established political habits, and a grim realization that human nature requires constant correction, hence the checks and balances.
Maureen Duffy, The Microcosm
A friend and I rewatched the cult classic The Killing of Sister George recently, relishing every mop top, ascot, and louche glance in a scene shot in the famous underground bar The Gateways. This led us to Duffy’s 1966 novel, in which this “house of shades”—the center of London lesbian life for decades— also figures prominently. Based on interviews she conducted in the early 60s, the novel interweaves stream-of-consciousness monologues by a mechanic, a PE teacher, a dog breeder, a secretary, a bus conductor, and more. The sheer variety of life is impressive: through these portraits Duffy aims to represent a diverse lesbian world on the verge of liberation. Across major class, educational, and age differences, the women’s thoughts circle around the same concerns: gender, violence, work, money, isolation, sex, the family, war, and, especially, the longing for love and the longing for freedom. This glimpse into the inner lives of a heterogeneous and, as they say, “misunderstood” social group makes this a thrilling read: “All the world going home to tea, seeing a spinster, a school marm with chalk in her hair and if they only knew.”
Lucy Jane Bledsoe, A Thin Bright Line
Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s compelling new novel imagines its way into the true life of the author’s aunt Lucybelle Bledsoe. A science writer and editor on a classified government research team, Lucybelle withstood the big chills of ice science and lesbian life under McCarthyism with smarts, style, and a fierce loyalty to the truth. Mid-century lesbians took great pains to erase evidence of their romantic lives: Bledsoe’s deep research in writing this novel echoes the work of its scientists to bring to light ice containing 120,000 years of climatological history. This book makes for a soberingly prescient read at a moment when we have a climate change denier up for head of the EPA. It’s a reminder, too, that a repressive order works by using fear to make the oppressed keep secrets from one another: the era depicted in Todd Haynes’s film Carol is just a generation behind us. A call for honesty, solidarity, and fidelity to science, Bledsoe’s novel, like the ice cores at its heart, offers a fascinating time capsule of an age we have not yet put to rest.
Ben H. Winters, Underground Airlines
No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which shall authorize or give to Congress any power to abolish or interfere with slavery in any of the States by whose laws it is, or may be, allowed or permitted.
Compared to the stylish Swastika-and-Stripes that waves in the opening credits of Amazon’s 2015–16 reimagining of Philip K Dick’s, Man in the High Tower, Ben Winters’s epigraph may seem sedate, even anodyne. Don’t be fooled: In this alternative 21st century America, where the “Hard Four” of southern states keep slavery a highly lucrative going concern, Winters has produced the rarest and best kind of dystopia: one that helps us see what’s going on around us right now, everyday. The third-world conditions under which “PBs” (people of bondage) toil in this novel are ultimately, just that: third-world sweatshops, only right here in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi or South Carolina. And how about the senseless violence the powers-that-be use to control black bodies? And the unthinking everyday racism that free blacks encounter outside the slave south? Victor, a black bounty hunter who earns his keep catching runaway slaves, occasionally daydreams a way out. He tells himself how different all that would have been if Lincoln hadn’t been killed in 1860, if a war had been fought to free the slaves. As Winters tells it, though, this is the story of Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, viewed under a different light. Ending slavery changed everything? Sure, sure, says Winters, isn’t it pretty to think so?
E. L. James, 50 Shades of Grey
Years ago, I attempted to buy the 50 Shades trilogy at a bookstore when, in sitcom-esque fashion, the cashier obnoxiously shouted, “Price check on 50 Shades of Grey!” Mortified, I ran out of the store and vowed to buy an e-reader, but I never got around to actually downloading E. L. James’s erotic novels (when they were published, my mother asked me what all of the fuss was about and said this genre was right up my alley: “You’re always reading neurotic novels!” An amusing and not wholly inaccurate mondegreen). Inspired by the Public Books roundtable on the series (which resurfaced recently on Public Bookshelf thanks to the keyword “romance”) as well as plans to see the latest installment on the big screen, I decided to give the books another very belated go. I’m only a few chapters in since I keep falling asleep and needing to start over to remember what happens—apparently I’m here for the plot. But 50 Shades reads just like a YA novel, which is no surprise given it started out as Twilight fanfiction, so I’m interested to see how erotic/neurotic it actually gets.
Larry Wolff, Postcards from the End of the World: Child Abuse in Freud’s Vienna
Although Wolff’s book changed titles in later editions (substituting the subtitle for the title and vice versa), I always preferred the original, apocalyptic title. For the discovery of child abuse—not only its frequency but that it exists at all, distinct from “excess of parental discipline”—is an event of world-ending proportions. Wolff makes the case that the reality of child abuse was so threatening to the Viennese’s sentimental picture of the family that they refused to acknowledge it even when presented with two macabre cases of parents torturing their children to death. And among those who refused to see it was one Viennese who became famous for seeing things—yes, some fictive—that the rest of society stubbornly ignored: Sigmund Freud himself.
Leanne Simpson, Islands of Decolonial Love
A text that embodies the contradictions of being an Indigenous woman in a settler state, Simpson’s short book feels as simultaneously slippery and solid as a fish wriggling its way back to the water. Part poetry, part short story, part performance, and part Anishinaabe glossary, the vignettes assembled in this beautiful book are held together by the connective tissue of lived experience and historical memory. One expects (and is still satisfied by) a poem entitled “smallpox, anyone,” but what of the sasquatches (who are really Nishnaabeg beings of love and kindness) who find themselves depressed and isolated in the modern world? Or the bobcat and the bear who painstakingly dissolve their cages at the zoo?
This is a book that offers me moments of intense recognition and intense alienation. I can only hope her upcoming book, This Accident of Being Lost, is longer, so that I will have even more time to sit with the prickly warmth that Simpson offers.