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
Erik Barnouw, The Magician and the Cinema
“That’s a good book,” said the man delivering a bookshelf to my new office. He was pointing to Erik Barnouw’s The Magician and the Cinema, and he was right. I bought this book almost 20 years ago, intrigued by the title: two great things that go great together. This month, I finally got to read it. I learned that professional magicians were enthusiastic early adopters of cinema and helped to invent important film techniques such as dissolves, slow motion, and animation. As a historian of celebrity, I came to Barnouw’s work curious about film stardom before the studio system. I left with a rich new understanding of how and why films enchant us.
Literary Fiction Section Editor
Andrei Sinyavsky, Strolls with Pushkin, translated from the Russian by Slava I. Yastremski and Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy
Irreverence is difficult; it’s easier to critique, or debunk, or demystify. Here is an example of irreverence as a kind of skeptical love, not exactly an intellectual style widely practiced at the moment. Comprised of two separate essays written over a quarter century apart—the first smuggled out of a Soviet labor camp in letters to his wife—Sinyavsky’s writing on Pushkin, here collected in Columbia University
Press’s new Russian Library, is a reminder that irreverence has its magic. He has no set method, only an eccentric kind of flight, swooping down suddenly into offhandedly brilliant gestures, such as a rumination on Pushkin’s affection for circles and ellipses; a brief philosophy of laziness, the trait that links Pushkin to Mozart; a discussion of school dormitories (for which Pushkin carried a lifelong nostalgia) as a kind of open sociability that could be as generative as it could be puerile. Mixed with all this freedom, to change subjects and approaches midstream, is the knowledge that he’s going to offend—and he did—but giving offense doesn’t seem to be the point. It’s to show the critic’s intelligence in the act of almost successfully not being seduced.
Children’s & YA Literature Section Editor
Bao Phi and Thi Bui, A Different Pond
In 2015, young adult author Corinne Duyvis created the Twitter hashtag #OwnVoices to identify children’s books featuring characters from underrepresented groups written by people who belong to those same groups. The idea was not to police who can write what, merely to celebrate diverse voices as well as diverse content as part of a broader effort to make youth literature more reflective of the rich heterogeneity of human experience.
Bao Phi and Thi Bui’s powerfully affecting picture book A Different Pond eloquently attests to the benefits of seeking out and sharing such stories. A seemingly simple tale about a boy getting up before dawn to go fishing with his father is gradually enriched by a wealth of small textual and visual details that vividly evoke the lived experience of growing up poor as the child of Vietnamese refugees. Inky blue washes of color conjure up the pre-dawn Minnesota pond, contrasting with the warm golden tones that infuse the more intimate space of the family home. What’s most impressive is how delicate a balance the story strikes. The painful necessity of a workday that begins before dawn, of what it takes to put food on the table, coexists with moments of adventure, peace, and intimacy between father and son.
Art Section Editor
Teju Cole, Blind Spot
A cell-phone aesthetic here achieves beauty. Not that Teju Cole actually shot the photographs in Blind Spot with a cell phone. He goes out of his way to say he used a “camera,” which only makes it clearer that some devices induce a vision that exceeds them. We apprehend the world now through the tiny phone screens that act as viewfinders, display spaces, and text-bearers, flickering fragments of pictures and words 24/7. Cole’s aesthetic of insufficiency and deception, of flattened vision, artificial correspondences, scattered reference, and sidelong intimations is the visual condition of our time. His photographs curate compositions, by framing derelict things, global places, and, occasionally, people.
Unlike so many great photographs of the past, they do not reveal the luminous potential or essence of any material, color, or shape. Printed barely bigger than a phone, with wide blank white borders on the right-hand pages of his book, each photograph reverberates against a short text printed on the left-hand page in an elegantly delicate 21st-century font. These episodic posts obey no obvious narrative. Yet their consistent, self-conscious epigrams arc across 323 pages: “an inventory picture like this one, in which no square centimeter is allowed to lord it over any other one”; “in these sudden rifts in the natural order of time, prodigies of vision in the guise of hybrid forms can appear briefly, before the critical faculty intervenes”; “more than the work itself, its form, its genre, its existence in tangible form, what interests me is the secret channel that connects the work to other work”; “the world was now a series of interleaved apparitions.”
Leah Lax, Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home
In Uncovered, Leah Lax tells the story of how she came out as a gay woman after three decades of living in the Hasidic community. Lax grew up in a liberal Jewish home in the 1960s and ’70s and shares how joining Hasidism was her form of rebellion. Faith was a way to access history, tradition, and a sense of belonging, as well as a way to resolve her queer sexuality. Her memoir tracks the paradoxes at the heart of her life—being deeply closeted while in proximity to deeply homoerotic rituals and socialities, finding (and then losing) her individuality through replication of gendered norms—and her attempts to reconcile her identity, family, and faith later in life.
N. K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season
The Fifth Season is the first book of the Broken Earth series, followed by The Obelisk Gate, both of which won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Jemisin is the first writer in 25 years to win this prestigious fantasy and science-fiction award two years in a row. But it would be a shame if her work only reached readers of this genre, since she seems to write for those of us who haven’t read fantasy for years. The Fifth Season delivers the childlike wonder of encountering a new world with resounding depth. Jemisin delicately weaves themes of oppression, sexuality, race, and identity into the world she builds.
The first chapter, written in the second person, begins after a horrific event with the words, “You are here,” forcing the reader to question who and where “you” are and paralleling the disorienting experience of trauma felt by the character. In contrast to many figures in fantasy, such as Aragon making Middle Earth great again in Return of the King, Jemisin’s protagonists—three women in The Fifth Season—refreshingly reject nostalgia as a motivating force for change. Those who have the ability to break earth apart (and manipulate energy), known as orogenes, provide the narrative drive. Read this timely page-turner now and enjoy it later on TNT, which is currently adapting it for television.