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
Rachel Khong, Goodbye, Vitamin
Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me
Two very different books about parents and children, grief and loss, captivated me this past fall. Rachel Khong’s novel Goodbye, Vitamin juxtaposes a father’s past record of his young daughter’s fleeting childhood perceptions (“You read ‘apply’ like it was about apples”) with her experience, as an adult, of the encroaching dementia that similarly transforms how he sees the world (“Today you said the sunshine was a stick of butter”). Sherman Alexie’s memoir of his mother, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, attempts to reconcile his childhood experience of violence and neglect at the hands of his parents and others with the violence visited on them as Spokane Indians living on a reservation. One hundred sixty short chapters, some poems, some prose, come together like the squares of his mother’s quilts. “My mother, the quilter, will always haunt me,” he writes, which is his way of saying that he will never bid his memories of her good-bye.
MANAGING EDITOR AND LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION SECTION EDITOR
Curzio Malaparte, The Kremlin Ball
Begun as an outgrowth of The Skin in 1946, subsequently developed into an autonomous work, ultimately left incomplete around 1950, The Kremlin Ball was to have been a “faithful portrait” of the Soviet Communist haute société that had taken the place of the Tsarist ancien régime, the same elite that would soon be swallowed up by Stalin’s show trials and purges. The project is based on a fascinating contradiction: the author arrived in Moscow in 1929 convinced he would find in power a working class bursting with revolutionary ideals and puritanical in style; instead he encountered, a mere five years after Lenin’s death, a Marxist aristocracy mimicking the West, drowning in vice and corruption, and dominated by fear. For a communist true believer, the portrait is a devastating one, but the suave and amoral Malaparte does not judge them particularly harshly; in his eyes they are merely parvenus whose greatest folly may have been aesthetic: presuming to take beauty away from their poets.
Several years ago I wrote a reader’s report on this title for NYRB Classics, recommending publication. I’m thrilled they decided to pursue it, not least because Jenny McPhee’s translation is superb.
Literary Fiction Section Editor
Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth
A chance bookstore encounter brought me to this, and I was surprised—how was it possible to have missed a McEwan novel, given the publicity he gets? It turns out my lack of awareness was thematically appropriate: this is a novel drenched in shame for the business of fiction. Serena Frome, a Cambridge student of modern literature, is seduced into taking a job with MI5, where her task is to identify suitably non-radical, sophisticated novelists to be surreptitiously funded through a front called Freedom International. When Serena falls in love with her first target, the question arises—with McEwan’s typical bent toward Escherian reversals—who is plotting whom. As a look back at a Cold War cultural field saturated by money from the SIS and CIA, the novel has historical interest. What gives it literary-historical interest is the way it reveals a McEwan project: to rewrite the major modes of postwar British fiction. If, for instance, 2007’s On Chesil Beach distilled the shabby genteel realism of Barbara Pym or Philip Larkin, Sweet Tooth is an homage to the murky spyworld of le Carré—all 1970s drabness and moral compromise. More intriguing still is the coldness, even slight malice, of McEwan’s rewriting.
Children’s & YA Literature Section Editor
Laura Amy Schlitz, The Hired Girl
Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March. L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon. Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy Ray. These fictional heroines were the most beloved imaginary companions of my own girlhood. Only very rarely do I happen upon another character who I would place in their company, such as Cassandra Mortmain, the irresistibly eloquent and passionate heroine of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.
Enter Laura Amy Schlitz’s Joan Skraggs, who not only makes the cut but also inhabits a historical fiction that might actually please contemporary child readers more than some of the older titles on my list (which nowadays can feel a bit long-winded and preachy). In lively first-person narration reminiscent of her fellow diarists Emily and Cassandra, Joan chronicles her daring flight from a family farm where she is forced to labor for free—with no hope of getting the education she so ardently desires—to a more enabling but still challenging position serving as a hired girl in a Jewish family in 1911 Baltimore.
I particularly love how the family’s Jewishness and Joan’s Catholicism are represented as both spiritually sustaining and as sources of internal and external conflict. I also appreciate how powerfully The Hired Girl brings home to readers the pain of growing up in a grindingly poor and patriarchal family, without losing sight of the crucially enabling pleasures of solidarity across age, class, gender, and ethnic lines. The Hired Girl is a contemporary classic.
Edith Pearlman, Honeydew
I recently began reading Honeydew, Edith Pearlman’s first collection of short stories since Binocular Vision, the winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award in 2011. So far, what I find most striking about these tales is my desire to recount them, despite how much they suffer in the retelling. In “Castle Four,” a shy anesthesiologist falls in love with a cancer patient and they marry just a few weeks before her death. In “Blessed Harry,” an internet scam serves as an occasion for the wife of a humble Latin teacher to count her family’s blessings. By cannily framing scenes of modest heroism with moments from adjacent lives (another pair of lovers at the hospital in the case of the former story, the much-abused but nonetheless thriving family houseplant in the latter), Pearlman crafts elegant, masterful, and poignant stories that resonate long after they’re read.
PS: While I’m on my soapbox, I especially want to direct readers to “Assisted Living.” I found that my dislike for both its central character and her possessions had no bearing on the delight I experienced reading Pearlman’s catalogue of those objects, which called to mind Maira Kalman’s tranquil and resonant recreation of her mother’s closet which appeared at the Met last year.
Lynda Prouse, Kyle Torke, and M. Stefan Strozier, The Tonya Tapes
With the 2018 Olympics around the corner and I, Tonya garnering three Oscar nominations for its darkly comedic portrayal of Tonya Harding’s life leading up to (and briefly after) the 1994 attack on Nancy Kerrigan, the conditions are ripe for figure skating mania. I am one such affected person and so just started The Tonya Tapes. After years of delay due to a series of personal and legal issues, this “comeback story” was finally published in 2008. The text is comprised of lightly edited transcribed interviews that author Lynda Prouse conducted with Harding between 1999 and 2001. Prouse’s introduction is quick to point out that the sport that banned Harding (after years of never truly welcoming her) would not enjoy its current levels of popularity if not for the publicity and ratings she helped generate in the 1990s, a tension that feels that much more live reading it in 2018. The story that unfolds is one of scandal, but more importantly one of survival, and perhaps that is why this underdog remains a champion in the hearts of so many.