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
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, My Own Words; Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World
In the run-up to the Gorsuch hearings I’ve been drawn to the writings of these two sitting justices. Each justice’s book cultivates both feeling and argument. Justice Ginsburg weaves her legal story through reflections on her predecessors as well as her engagement with colleagues, some new, others long-cherished. In Sotomayor’s memoir (which we reviewed back in 2013), the justice writes into being another kind of relationship—one with her younger self. Her Sonia is a melancholy girl growing up in the Bronx projects. She carries the precious weight of her family even as she labors to find a place beyond them in education, debate, and, eventually, law. The depiction resonates with an empathy for which the justice drew both praise and scorn during her own hearings. We can only hope that the current nominee will come to see such empathy as a core judicial value.
Ingrid D. Rowland, The Scarith of Scarnello: A Tale of Renaissance Forgery
When precocious teenager Curzio Inghirami “discovers” a trove of supposedly ancient Etruscan prophecies in a hillside below his family’s Tuscan villa, the scholarly community of mid-17th-century Italy (and beyond) is riveted and riven by the scandal. Rowland, whose writings on Italian art and architecture I first came across a decade ago in the New York Review of Books (where she also published a wonderful review of Knausgaard’s strange pre-Struggle gem, A Time for Everything), is a fantastically erudite but also warm and witty guide to the story, which comes to encompass a significant slice of the period’s colorful intellectual history.
Personal Shopper, directed by Olivier Assayas
I once heard a screenwriting professor tell a class that there was no interesting way to write a computer screen into a scene. With all due respect, Olivier Assayas—who wrote and directed Personal Shopper—has proven him wrong. It’s a movie about mediums, in both the technological and spiritual senses. Kristen Stewart teams up with Assayas (who directed her in Clouds of Sils Maria) to play, once again, a high-maintenance celebrity’s personal assistant—but this time, one who may or may not be able to commune with the dead. Like many of us, she also spends a lot of her time communing with the physically absent, by texting, Skyping, and watching YouTube videos. What unfolds is a strange witches’ brew of The Shining, The Devil Wears Prada, and Marshall McLuhan, and I couldn’t look away. Stewart seems to have found a muse in Assayas, and we are the luckier for it.
Keisha N. Blain
Global Black History Section Editor
Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave in the Building of a Nation
If the recent release of films and television shows such as Underground, The Birth of a Nation, and the new Roots is any indication, there is a renewed public interest in the history of slavery. Despite the valuable insights they offer, these films only scratch the surface. In The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, Daina Ramey Berry offers an in-depth, nuanced, and harrowing account of slavery, drawing on more than a decade of extensive research. The book explores the economic value of enslaved men and women during each phase of their lives—from before conception to after death—and it does so by centering their ideas. As Berry powerfully demonstrates, enslaved men and women were keenly aware of their monetary value and relied on this knowledge to navigate a complex system of domination. The book offers a unique perspective on the slave experience and deepens our understanding of the relationship between slavery and capitalism in the United States and beyond.
Anthropology & Religion Section Editor
Thomas Laqueur, The Work of the Dead; Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes; Margaret Schwartz, Dead Matter
Most flurries of books on the same subject published in the same year are easily explained. It’ll be an anniversary of some sort (famous person, war, etc.). Back in 2015, though, we got a batch of books with a more inexplicable provenance: how we deal with the dead—and their material there-ness. I’m just now getting to them, and each has a lot to offer. Thomas Laqueur’s The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains is a magnum opus, a magisterial piece of scholarship that captures the corpse’s “protean magic.” Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematorium is an insider’s account of care for the contemporary dead that plays on our understandings of that magic by revealing something of its hidden mundane. Margaret Schwartz begins Dead Matter: The Meaning of Iconic Corpses with one of the most moving prefaces I’ve read in quite some time. From this very personal point of departure, she goes on to explore how media cultures manage—and, in many cases, prohibit—encounters with death. All three books turn in their own ways on this very particular matter of enchantment, insisting, simultaneously, on both calculation and wonder.
Children’s & YA Fiction Section Editor
Susan Tan, Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire, illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
Susan Tan’s Cilla Lee-Jenkins is a welcome addition to the wonderfully rich tradition of children’s book heroines who are themselves creative writers, such as Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March and Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik. Worried about the impending arrival of an attention-grabbing new sibling, eight-year-old Cilla decides to compose a memoir that will make her famous and ensure that her family doesn’t forget about her. A funny and insightful narrator, she paints a vivid picture of her loving but also somewhat divided extended family. Meanwhile, the tales she tells—beautifully nested one inside the other—attest in affecting ways to the power of words and stories to get us in and out of trouble: to arouse our fears, but also to ease them; to alienate us from each other, but also to create community. At a time when only a small percentage of children’s books feature non-white protagonists, it’s great to see a biracial child character coping not only with widely shared problems (such as not knowing what to say when a friend is sad), but also with ones particular to kids whose racial identity isn’t immediately obvious (such as not knowing what to say when a clueless adult asks, “What are you, exactly?”).
Megan Abbott, You Will Know Me
Abbott’s 2016 book combines all of my favorite spectator sports in one thrilling novel: gymnastics, murder, and scandal (about half a dozen people reached out when it debuted last summer to make sure I knew about it, and I’ve truly never felt more understood). The novel explores a mystery that disrupts the lives of an elite gymnast, her family, and their gymnastic community. It fascinatingly considers how control, discipline, and surveillance of bodies does not necessarily translate to knowledge of the persons who inhabit those bodies—in other words, the gymnasts that populate the novel are hyperscrutinized and managed by the adults around them down to the last muscle, but these athletes find ways to escape the helicoptering, sometimes to heartbreaking ends.
Hermann Broch, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and His Time: The European Imagination, 1860–1920, edited and translated from the German by Michael P. Steinberg
Broch belongs in the same category as Hannah Arendt: of instinctually original thinkers whose turbulent lives transformed them into dazzling analysts of the human condition. Both writers fled the Nazi advance, Arendt from Germany and Broch from Austria. Fulfilling the stereotype about Austria, Broch’s oeuvre deals more frequently with aesthetics. And that fits. It was in this book about Hugo von Hofmannsthal, lyric genius of turn-of-the-century Vienna, that Broch coined his famous meme: Vienna was the city of the “gay apocalypse,” where the aesthetic swelled to ridiculous proportions to mask the moral poverty beneath. But Broch’s aesthetic vision had substance. He comes close to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s enigmatic dictum—“Ethics and aesthetics are one”—as he grapples with the dissolution of values he thought most characteristic of that vanished world.
Valerie Elizabeth Bondura
Åsne Seierstad, One of Us, translated from the Norwegian by Sarah Death
Seierstad, a Middle East war correspondent, turns her intense eye for detail to Anders Breivik’s massacre in Norway in 2011. Victims and killer are narrated in parallel and in agonizing specificity. The result is part Knausgaardian account of Norwegian life, part hyper-documented In Cold Blood. The lives of Breivik and his victims are given in such detail that one senses we know them better than they knew themselves—the love or neglect that brought them into the world, the friendships lost or gained, the rejections that stung, and the desires, envies, and aspirations that fueled their lives. There is not a moment of speculation, only the unrelenting march of lives lived and of choices made. This is a book that asks how we care for one another, and untangles the ways in which care and community are always tied up in politics—a timely thing to consider.
Sahar Ishtiaque Ullah
‘A’ishah al-Ba’uniyah, Emanations of Grace: Mystical Poems, edited and translated from the Arabic by Th. Emil Homerin
Between the long inward-facing process of writing a dissertation and the terrifying political developments happening outside of that fearful document, I have been turning the pages of love poetry by the 16th-century poet ‘A’ishah al-Ba’uniyah on my nightstand. The first English translation of her work, Emanations of Grace includes a collection of al-Ba’uniyah’s short contemplative poems and longer Sufi wine odes she most likely completed during the years she lived in Cairo before departing for Aleppo. Against the contemporary noise of fear and villainization of Syrian Muslim refugees in the United States, enjoying the translated voice of a medieval poet from Damascus gently ruminate on love, existence, ecstasy, and longing for the divine feels profoundly sad and simultaneously revealing.
Harold Bloom, The American Religion
Historian Henry F. May once wrote that Bloom’s book was “unabashedly subjective and sometimes wrong-headed.” Priest Richard John Neuhaus was even more direct, calling the book “a 288-page imaginative flirtation with nonsense.” I tend to agree, and it is precisely these flights of deeply imaginative subjectivity that make Harold Bloom—who has garnered acclaim mostly as a literary critic—such a fascinating and illuminating practitioner of what he dubs “religious criticism.” Colored by Bloom’s self-styled “Gnostic Judaism” and his decidedly aesthetic stance towards spirituality, Bloom’s analysis extends across those religious sects and denominations he calls “American originals”: Mormons, Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Adventists, Christian Scientists. The book is now two decades old, but in its grasp of national religious contradictions and peculiarities it remains singularly insightful, at times even prescient. In the past year, our “religious right” has selected as its flag-bearer a billionaire who did not know how to pronounce “II Corinthians,” and who would have more than a little difficulty fitting through the eye of a needle. Perhaps to understand our national religious climate we need a critic interested in flirting with America’s more nonsensical subjectivities.