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
Tina Brown, The Vanity Fair Diaries, 1983–1992
No editor could resist a book that includes this love letter to the art of the red pencil: “I’ve always loved the routine aspects of editing, the poised pencil, the swift identification of the lines that have to go, the insert that will make it sing, the rewarding moment when you see that the whole thing should start on page nine and flip the penultimate paragraph to the top of the piece, and all you want to do is call the writer immediately and tell him or her why.”
Tina Brown, in diary entries that span the years she spent editing Vanity Fair, also shows off some pretty good writing. Thumbnail character sketches sharp as tiny scimitars pinion their subjects: Vogue’s senior editor Polly Mellen sits at a fashion show, “squawking and clanking and … every so often giving a tiny round of applause and mouthing ‘triumph, triumph’ when a cashmere cardigan dress sails by.” At first, Brown sees 1980s New York through English eyes, but the loud and glittering city quickly changes her. After only a year away, “When I call London to talk to writers … I hear the rain in their voices.” Meanwhile, a “sulky, Elvisy Donald Trump” stalks through these pages, making the rounds of a rapidly gentrifying Manhattan.
In 1992, when Brown took over as editor of the New Yorker, naysayers accused her of cheapening the magazine by pandering to the latest trends. These diaries reveal that Brown’s eye for talent saved the magazine in lasting ways. She promoted or recruited some of its most venerable current contributors—Louis Menand, Adam Gopnik, Anthony Lane—and hired David Remnick, who eventually succeeded her as editor. And despite being known, even reviled, for her popular touch, the diary form shows another side of Tina Brown: the erudite aesthete who reads Gregor von Rezzori on weekends and turns to Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop for inspiration when naming her 2008 online newspaper The Daily Beast.
Managing Editor and LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION SECTION EDITOR
Paolo Cognetti, The Eight Mountains, translated from the Italian by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre
If “meditation and water are wedded forever,” as Melville had it, the narrator and protagonist of this quiet, affecting novel comes to realize that “there’s nothing like the mountains for making you remember.” Pietro, who as a teenager stopped accompanying his father on hikes during the family’s annual summer stay in the Dolomites, returns in middle age to retrace his late parent’s favorite lonely routes. He also accepts the challenge of building a small house on the isolated property left to him, with the invaluable guidance of Bruno, a local boy and his childhood playmate.
Bruno turns out to have replaced him as his father’s hiking partner, and to some extent as a son; he also represents Pietro’s best chance for a lasting friendship—if it can be maintained. The book contains countless striking descriptions of the landscape’s austere beauty—the snow following the shape of the mountain like a film negative; the water rumbling beneath the ice, as if trying to break out of its tomb—but none more relevant here than the one about the “strange contrast between the entropy of human things and the resurgence of spring: the three buildings [of the farmstead] were falling into decline—their walls curving like elderly backs, their roofs succumbing to the weight of winters—while everywhere around them was awash with burgeoning herbs and flowers.”
global black history Section Editor
Edited by Martin Munro, The Haunted Tropics: Caribbean Ghost Stories
The Haunted Tropics is a collection of short ghost stories by Caribbean writers, edited by Martin Munro. The collection features canonical authors whose names will be familiar to readers: Maryse Condé, Gisèle Pineau, Madison Smartt Bell, Shani Mootoo, Earl Lovelace, and others. Munro writes in his introduction that “to a large extent, Caribbean fiction in general is a collection of ghost stories, tales of haunted people, memories and places.” This collection explores literal hauntings that also speak of turbulent histories and fraught realities.
There is a saying in Ghana, “suro nipa na gyae saman.” Be afraid of people, not of ghosts. This saying suggests that there is no violence, no treachery, in the supernatural realm that is more pernicious than what one will encounter in everyday life. In The Haunted Tropics, to be afraid of ghosts is to be afraid of people. The spirits, zombies, and obeahmen that float through this collection are as real, as tangible as the realities of love, desire, inequality, and political intrigue that make up their Caribbean landscape. As Munro notes, “it is significant that notorious pro-government militia groups in Haiti—the Tontons Macoutes and the Chimères—adopted names that refer to folkloric, ghostly figures, and thereby play on the fear that to live in the present is to be haunted by the vengeful and violent ghosts of the past.”
The natural and the supernatural are not parallel realms as the Ghanaian proverb suggests, nor is the latter simply an allegory for the vicissitudes of everyday life. The two are intricately intertwined as characters struggle for political power, economic mobility, recognition, and acceptance, all the while fleeing marijuana-smoking zombies. Ever the deliberate writers, these authors refuse caricature and present multilayered snapshots of the complex relationships, past and present, that make the Caribbean a site of haunting.
Children’s & YA Literature Section Editor
Kevin Emerson, Last Day on Mars
Reading Stuart Gibbs’s brilliantly plotted Space Case a few years ago made me recall how much I loved Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books when I was younger. Kids today are spoiled for choice, given how many gripping middle-grade and young adult science fiction titles are coming out right now. My current favorites include Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae, Melissa Landers’s Starflight, Rhoda Belleza’s Empress of a Thousand Skies, and Kevin Emerson’s Last Day on Mars. I’m particularly fond of Emerson’s middle-grade page-turner because of the playful vividness of his prose, which gives his epic space adventure some Douglas Adams flair. And for young readers interested in raiding their parents’ sci-fi bookshelves, I recommend Becky Chambers’s The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti.
Urbanism Section Editor
Elaine Tyler May, Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy
American fear has skyrocketed while crime in the United States has plunged. How did this happen? Why are Americans obsessed with protection—hiding behind gates, armed to the teeth, and vigorously prepping—when crime has been decreasing for 30 years and we are no longer facing the existential threat of the Soviet Union? Elaine Tyler May answers these questions in her new book Fortress America, in which she argues that the pervasive dread of the Cold War never really ended but metasticized into the American consciousness, particularly fear of cities and racial conflict. May connects this securitized life to anxiety over the changes in the composition of the American family and gender roles that began in the 1960s: obsession with the outside world is actually a means to control domestic life and, perhaps, to freeze it in time.
Tae Keller, The Science of Breakable Things
In Tae Keller’s debut YA novel, The Science of Breakable Things, protagonist Natalie tries to navigate middle school while struggling with a new family secret: her mother’s depression. A botanist who has recently lost her job, her mother withdraws from her family, a move that is inexplicable to Natalie. She doesn’t feel comfortable talking to her friends about the situation, and while she agrees to see a therapist, she is reluctant to open up. This young girl’s experiences of mental illness in the family and her own first experience encountering the mental health system are told with humor and honesty. Like the plants her mother studies, Natalie works to grow toward the light in conditions that at first glance appear desolate.
A Time to Stir: Columbia ’68, edited by Paul Cronin
This collection of essays, edited by Paul Cronin, effectively captures the energy and upheaval that permeated Columbia University’s campus 50 years ago, when students occupied five university buildings as a sign of protest against a number of Columbia’s policies. The protests were led by the Students for Democratic Society (SDS) and the Students’ Afro-American Society (SAS), who were concerned mainly with the university’s plan of building a gymnasium in a nearby residential area in Harlem, and its involvement with the Vietnam war. A Time to Stir enables us to receive a comprehensive understanding of those seven days of chaos on the university’s campus, as it serves as a platform for the views of individuals from different and opposing sides. It includes pieces from direct participants and members of the student groups, faculty members who were opposing the protests, and even police officers that intervened in the conflict. The protests that took place in 1968 at Columbia grabbed the world’s attention and encouraged the outbreak of many other student movements across the world, hence spreading anti-war messages and a general distaste for the moral code of these institutions. This meticulously edited work serves as a powerful tool to look back to this exemplary moment of student activism and willingness to fight the status quo for what is right.
Niv M. Sultan
Victor Fresco, Santa Clarita Diet
In Santa Clarita Diet, Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore) is making out with her husband when she bites his finger. The act is loaded with significant tension, albeit not entirely sexual: Sheila has recently become undead and developed a hunger for human meat. The finger is appetizing.
Santa Clarita Diet blurs the boundaries between humankind’s myriad desires—for sex and food, truth and appearance. Orgasms and phalangeal snacks; it’s all the same to Sheila. That blurring, in turn, communicates the show’s central understanding of modern middle-class American life: people are little more than collections of wants that the world is incapable of satisfying. But Sheila’s undeath, for all its complications, liberates her. Each moment in which she clings to quaint suburban domesticity is countered by multiple moments in which she rejects it, and thereby finds personal fulfillment. Rather than maintaining the social order that has left her hungry, Sheila destroys it. Bite by bite.