Here’s a peek into the mind of the new Public Books. With this edition of On Our Nightstands, we are delighted to introduce our section editors. Each section editor is responsible for a specifc topic or a series (you can see a list of their beats on our masthead). This month, we asked each section editor to recommend something in their field that they recently enjoyed.
Editor in Chief
Normally an On Our Nightstands entry would be a short description of a book I’m reading for the first time. But since November 9, I’ve been rereading so many classic guides to dark times that this month, my entry takes the form of a list:
- Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem and Men in Dark Times
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake
- George Orwell, 1984
- Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy
- Astrid Lindgren, A World Gone Mad
- Viktor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years
- P. D. James, Children of Men
- Elaine Scarry, Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom
- Shirley Jackson, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons
The Shirley Jackson is my light reading.
Managing Editor; Literature in Translation Section Editor
Stefan Hertmans, War and Turpentine, translated from the Dutch by David McKay
Our narrator, a Flemish writer, reconstructs the life of his grandfather, an artist and WWI veteran, from a pair of old notebooks. He moves from striking image to telling anecdote, from sensuous detail to philosophical reflection, and in the process his own childhood memories gain significance and clarity. The account is occasionally supplemented by old photographs, uncaptioned. If we’ve seen the like before—from Sebald, certainly, and more recently from Teju Cole and Ali Smith, but I am also reminded of Claudio Magris and Cees Nooteboom—it has rarely been accomplished so beautifully. So far I particularly enjoy reading about the grandfather’s time with his own father, a church painter in Ghent: “The devotional nature of these hours is sacred to [him]. When it’s cold, he blows puffs of mist into the beams of light, and they rise like incense during Sunday mass. His faith is fired by the magic of the colors on his father’s old palette … , by the sound of his father humming, there at the top of the stepladder, as if he is part of the scene he is painting, with one foot in heaven already, a heaven of plaster and paint, of old smells, of cold and damp, of filtered light from above shining down on their arms and shoulders, as if they are rising above themselves into a biblical scene. It is the adoration of painting, a personal allegory, a conspiracy between a father and his son.”
Digital Director; TV Section Editor
Atlanta, created by Donald Glover
Donald Glover may have pitched his 2016 TV series as “Twin Peaks with rappers,” but Atlanta feels entirely without precedent. On its face, it’s a prodigal-son story: a Princeton dropout comes back to his hometown of Atlanta to work as a manager for his cousin, a rapper whose star is slowly on the rise. But the plot isn’t really the point. Glover said his goal was “to show people how it felt to be black, and you can’t really write that down. You kind of have to feel it.” Atlanta’s mode is poetry rather than prose: it aims to capture the feeling of being black, and of being broke, in America; the feeling of a place (Atlanta); the feeling of a scene (Atlanta hip-hop). It’s weird, dreamy, sad, ambitious, unpredictable, and very funny. I can’t wait for Season 2.
Global Coordinating Editor
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
“It was the wrong color for a fire,” observes a 19th-century gunslinger seeing new electric lights in an unfamiliar town, “and daybreak was out of the question, though the end of the world remained a possibility.” It’s 1893, it’s Thomas Pynchon, it’s the only book I’ve been able to stomach since the election. Unexpectedly, the 1000+ page Against the Day is as easy to read as the trashiest pulp, but could not be more brilliant, hypnotic, or eye-opening. Pynchon here is accessible, provocative, and laugh-out-loud funny: on the Wild West and the closing of the frontier, on the plutocrats conspiring to sabotage Nikola Tesla and other anarchist visionaries, on union men and pioneer women and corrupt politicians and murderous police and ordinary folk lost in the shuffle. Imagine Westworld as written by Howard Zinn and designed by Hayao Miyazaki. As ever, Pynchon is the most empathetic of writers: big-hearted and respectful and teasing and filled with love for every person we meet. The villains here are few (but infinitely powerful), the heroes many (but confused and divided), everyone struggling to make ends meet while an old world comes crashing down. How familiar.
Food & the Environment
Kirk Lynn, Rules for Werewolves
Set in the quasi-dystopia of contemporary suburban America, Kirk Lynn’s dialogue-rich novel is at turns grungy and sexy, smart-mouthed and big-hearted. It tracks a crusty pack of wayward kids as they rove and bicker their way through a wasteland of foreclosed and vacated houses, scavenging for scraps, searching for safe haven. Pitched uneasily between realism and parable, the novel provokes us into asking if embracing wildness might provide us with a way not only to survive, but also to connect and to care for one another in a depleted world.
Keisha N. Blain
Global Black History
Gerald Horne, Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary
If you are interested in global black politics, you will enjoy Gerald Horne’s new book on the political career of singer-activist Paul Robeson. In this short and compelling biography, Horne charts the life of the famed singer and civil rights activist from his early years in Princeton, NJ, until his passing in Philadelphia, in 1976. The book takes the reader on a transnational journey through Robeson’s eyes, exploring his varied political commitments and his efforts to advance civil and human rights from various locales, including London and Moscow. Robeson’s remarkable life deepens our understanding of the global black freedom struggle in the 20th century and offers valuable insights on contemporary movements for social justice.
Jude Sierra, Idlewild
Romance novels often get denigrated for being formulaic, in part because the meet / fall in love / experience turmoil / reconcile / live happily ever after plot is supposed to be unrealistic. In 2016’s Idlewild, though, the simple narrative beats allow Jude Sierra to put together a story that’s consciously as small as life. Asher, owner of the restaurant Idlewild, is recovering from the death of his husband five years before; new waiter Tyler is trying to decide what to do with his life after dropping out of med school. Their love isn’t an earth-shattering upheaval so much as a quiet step or two towards hope and renewal—a step that mirrors the novel’s faith in Detroit. “We don’t need to be saved from ourselves,” Tyler tells Asher. “We need people to work beside us.” Forget the great dramatic narratives; Sierra knows quotidian togetherness has more heart.
Julia Baird, Victoria the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire
What better way to prepare for Masterpiece’s new Victoria series (which debuted in the US January 15) than by picking up Julia Baird’s sensitive biography? This book offers more than a primer on the dramas animating the 19th-century monarch’s long reign. It also updates the sovereign, so that she appears far more modern—and human—than in other accounts. Gone are Victoria’s widow’s weeds and pouting mouth. Instead, we’re treated to a queen who enjoyed sex, struggled to balance work and family, and, perhaps most crucially, savored her power (even as others tried to take it away). Given our current political climate, the arguments will resonate.
Lars Iyer, Spurious
Suspecting that the comedy of fatalism would be a better tonic for the past year’s disasters than lamentation, I returned to Lars Iyer’s Spurious, the first book of his trilogy about the end times of the humanities. Conditions in the US might now be right for these books to reach a larger American audience. Iyer gives us two middle-aged British philosophers, a Bouvard and Pécuchet for the theory generation, who stumble through conferences and administrative labor in gin-soaked despair at the collective idiocy— not excluding their own— that surrounds them. There is almost no novelistic detail; instead there are arias of piss-taking in which “W.”, a would-be Diogenes compromised by precarious employment, berates the narrator “Lars” on subjects ranging from Spinoza, the necessity of carrying a man bag, the elastic trousers of American academics, and the Messiah, who may have been—probably was—Kafka. Meanwhile Lars’s flat succumbs to an elemental and apocalyptic dampness. If there’s any antidote to the pathos and grief of the left intelligentsia in a time of defeat, the blackout gags of Iyer’s late-capitalist picaresque might be it. At the very least, right now, his masochistic humor feels right.
Anthropology & Religion
Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human
On my nightstand? Well, I don’t think nightstands should have day-job books on them, so in general the upturned wooden crate that I paid a bit too much for holds no books on anthropology or religion. But in the spirit of the indulgent read, one book that’s recently captured my attention is Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. It’s about a people called the Runa, who live in Ecuador’s Upper Amazon region, and what’s so gripping about it is Kohn’s refusal to translate that world into the comfort zone of figurative language or standard registers of social scientific analysis. How forests think. Yeah. Not how the Runa think about forests, or with them, or what have you. Tapirs, jaguars, anacondas, dogs, trees. Kohn takes us into this other world slowly; the book begins in Standard Average European but code switches with increasingly regularity into something Runa, or to be honest I don’t know what. It’s a mind bender to be sure, but a serious, and seriously imaginative rendering of life. It also has the virtue of being resistant to selective uptake. It’s a book, and you need to read every page (in order).
Gabby Schulz, Sick
This graphic memoir/essay has been at my bedside for the last few months. Schulz carries the reader into the heart (and the blood, sweat, and shit) of debilitating illness. And then things go really dark, as Schulz casts his feverish brain both outward (to the larger networks of power and powerlessness that shape health and illness in society) and inward (to those most personal, primal places that only profound desperation can unlock). This is not a book for those looking for heroic narratives of patients overcoming impossible odds. Schulz miraculously brings back from the heart of illness all the overwhelming, unbearable insights that we immediately try to forget the moment we are restored to “health.” Only when we are truly ill, this book argues, can we truly accept the true sickness of the world humanity has unmade in our image. This is a hard pill to swallow, but necessary medicine for 2017.
Children’s & YA Fiction
A. S. King, Still Life with Tornado
Many young adult novelists tackle the painful subject of the aftereffects of trauma on young people and their families—but rarely with as much creativity and insight as King does in this formally complex and powerfully affecting narrative. Shifting back and forth between past and present and between the perspective of a 16-year-old girl and her mother, King mixes a fantastic element into an otherwise realistic narrative, one that illustrates how a traumatic event can cut us off from our prior and future selves. By withholding details about this awful yet pointedly banal event until late in her story, King ensnares readers in an atmosphere of fearful anticipation that echoes the experience of her female protagonists, caught in a pattern that makes such acts of violence both ruinous and predictable.
Helen Molesworth, et al., Kerry James Marshall: Mastry
With his expression of one color, Kerry James Marshall alters our vision of American bodies. Besides his witty references that layer canonical masterpieces with ordinary things—Holbein with hair gel—and his monumental social realism in defiance of contemporary art babble, Marshall reinvents black. He manages to simultaneously convey the absences in our history and the presences in our imagination. His magic turns negative positive, just as Renaissance alchemy promised that “a black more black than black itself,” nigrium nigrius nigro, would transmute into a new Golden Age. The exhibition catalogue, especially the essay “Black Lives, Matter,” articulates Marshall’s visual complexities in words. On view at the Met Breuer in New York until the end of January, and then at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, March 12–July 2.
Nicole Dennis-Benn, Here Comes the Sun
A luxury hotel in Montego Bay is a perfect noir setting: a sunny paradise that only barely conceals a world of violence. Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel offers a similar package, with its upbeat title and beautiful, multicolored cover suggesting a beach read. But the opening line—“The long hours that Margot works at the hotel are never documented”—reveals the exploitation that fuels the fantasy. Margot sells sex to guests in order to support and protect her younger sister. Even though no one is saved in this world, the novel offers a moving portrait of familial love shaded by sacrifice, projection, and control. Dennis-Benn offers a glimpse of another possibility in her portrait of the older, worldly Verdene, whose love Margot cannot ultimately afford.
Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution
“President Robbins was so well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins.”
My current nightstand “B-Side” is a poet’s only work of fiction for adults. That makes it easy to see Robert Lowell’s verdict—“a unique and serious joke-book”—as permission to read this comedy only for the (admittedly hilarious) one-liners and eviscerating quips. Plus, it is transparently a roman-a-clef. Hannah Arendt and Louis Untermeyer (the self-satisfied self-anthologist) appear, and the character at its heart, Gertrude Johnson, is Mary McCarthy, arrived at secluded Benton College to diagnose, anatomize, and hang it up to dry in her caustic Groves of Academe (“The same water runs a prayer-wheel and a turbine. But to Gertrude this proved that a prayer-wheel is a turbine.”) Having read it about once a decade since I was 15, I am convinced something more is going on. This is a unique satire about social norming in 1950s America: it manages to lay bare the corrosive conformity of mainstream commercial culture, while also summing up with equal precision the hypocrisy and self-satisfaction of the “liberal education” that colleges offered to girls still meant and expected to “adjust” themselves to the marriage market that awaits beyond its gates. Come for the jokes; but stay for Jarrell’s reminder of the ways that institutions can enforce homogeneity in the name of liberty.
Books on Books
Keith Houston, The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time
The book on my nightstand is also about books, and, incidentally, how they got onto our nightstands, rather than being chained to lecterns. Houston tells the long history of books (and tablets, clay or electronic) through comparisons that are often as outlandish as they are telling: he describes the e-book economy, for example, as “a housing market where no one is allowed to buy a house and we, the tenants, remain trapped on the wrong side of the divide.”
Alexandra Vialla Méndez
Carmen Boullosa, Before, translated by Peter Bush, with an introduction by Phillip Lopate
In this slim novel, now translated into English, the Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa paints a vivid, real, and impossible dreamscape through the memories of a ghost remembering her childhood. It is a world of dress-up games and ink in the shape of spiders that come alive and, most of all, a terrible, crippling case of night terrors. I read this book in part to know what happens next to the little girl in the story, and in part to keep reading rich and surprising lines like “It smelled of eucalyptus branches, their transparent fragrance filling the open field of the room, the endless blue sky melding with our city air in the study, revealing volcanoes and mountains.”
Evelyn Waugh, The Loved One
This was the first Waugh novel I read, and it remains my favorite. I discovered almost a year into living in New York that my spirits would only be sustained by a regular diet of dark comedy. The first offerings to this craving were the autobiographical Kurt Vonnegut books—Palm Sunday and Fates Worse than Death. The next was The Loved One, the only Evelyn Waugh book I could find on a bookstore trip I made for the purpose, but far from disappointing: there’s gobs to laugh at in this macabre tale. Just get a load of the premise: down-and-out English poet Dennis Barlow takes a job at a pet cemetery, only to fall for Aimée, the cosmetician at the ritzy funeral home across town. Abandoned by the Muse at this critical moment, Dennis cribs from the history of English verse to woo his love, and both end up maybe more than “half in love with easeful death …”