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
Joy Santlofer, Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York
New York’s streets can be overwhelming, particularly for those of us whose seem to sniff out food everywhere. A quick walk around my office block offers up the porky unctuousness of ramen broth, the garlicy waft of well-sauced pasta, and the rousing sting of curry. New York was not always the center of culinary consumption, however. From its beginnings as a Dutch colony, New York was a place where ships came to deliver foodstuffs to be processed and to pick up the goods. In the 19th century, Joy Santlofer tells us, New York was the heart of American candy making, a seemingly joyful business she reveals was also responsible for New York businessmen’s support of slavery. The city’s confectionaries relied on sugar from southern plantations and metropolitan banks relied on southern debt payments to keep the profits rolling in. The North went to war regardless, but other New Yorkers made money supplying the troops with hard tack, a dense, battlefield-ready cracker. All of this took place in Manhattan’s downtown and Brooklyn’s waterfront, where New Yorkers could see and smell it. After reading Santofler’s book, I am redirecting my senses to discover what lies just out of sight in our current food system.
Managing Editor and LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION SECTION EDITOR
Mathias Énard, Compass, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
Among critically acclaimed literary novels recently translated into English, a good number center on a brilliant but troubled narrator sifting through old memories and obsessions, lost loves and the ruins of (especially European) high culture, with little in the way of plot, fleshed-out characters, or dialogue. If each such book seems to propose a fresh assault on the traditional well-made novel, their collective form has itself become canonical, with foundations laid at least as far back as Dostoevsky and Gide.1
Mathias Énard’s Compass, winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt and a staple of 2017 best-of lists here and in the UK, certainly feels familiar in many ways. The protagonist is an insomniac musicologist in Vienna, Franz Ritter, who, lamenting the vanishing of a cosmopolitan Middle East, feverishly recalls research trips and trysts, concerts and arguments, in Istanbul, Tehran, Aleppo, Damascus, and Palmyra. Nonetheless, the novel stands out for its refreshing lack (at least so far) of misanthropy. Franz is melancholy, a bit decadent, and probably hypochondriac, sure, but he’s not embittered. One expects mere solipsism and instead finds tremendous, wide-ranging empathy. In a book in this tradition, that can feel positively modern.
Senior Editor and Global Coordinator
Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
“I have tried to remain alert to the fact that the people, events and forces described in this book carried in them the seeds of other, perhaps less terrible, futures.” If only this wonderful line was the opening to a novel, an epic of towering egos broken by indifferent fate, of great houses laid low, of fabricated drama and fictitious consequences. Of course, Christopher Clark’s 2013 best seller The Sleepwalkers is deadly real: the devastating story of how Europeans caused the First World War. I have never read such a detailed, insightful, and distressingly human account of the war’s start. No one is a distant alien here, everyone a lively individual easily imagined appearing in tomorrow’s New York Times. The statesmen plotting against their foes were misguided but intelligent, the ideologies spurring the masses were dangerous but authentic, the battle plans optimistic but rational. Despite knowing the dangers of war, every nation and agency and army found ways to ignore the obvious and blindly leap. In short, The Sleepwalkers shows a world dangerously close to our own time, where accidents and gossip and happenstance continue to control our lives, where ignorance is everywhere ascendant. Just listen to this government minister promising the Duma that the war would be a “boon” for Russia: “Depend upon us, gentlemen, everything will be superb.” What a nightmare.
global black history Section Editor
Elizabeth Alexander, The Light of the World
I am a fast reader who will zip through a book in a day or two. However, I have been reading Elizabeth Alexander’s 200-page memoir for three months and I am only halfway through. The Light of the World is as hauntingly painful as it is breathtakingly beautiful. Alexander captures the intertwining of love and loss as she recounts her heady romance and deep friendship with her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, and his sudden death. Alexander’s language is so rich and evocative that I can only take the book in in measured doses. I have stopped to cry, to hold my husband, and to make Shrimp Baka from Ficre’s recipe. The community of family members and neighbors in this memoir feel strangely close. Perhaps it is because the book was a gift from a dear friend of mine and a student of Alexander’s. Perhaps it is the narrative style that is both personal and reflective. Perhaps it is all of these things and the fact that The Light of the World reads like an intimate conversation with a familiar stranger.
Children’s & YA Literature Section Editor
Rita Williams-Garcia, illustrated by Frank Morrison, Clayton Byrd Goes Underground
A middle-grade novel that really sings, Clayton Byrd Goes Underground drops us straight into a jam session featuring bluesman Cool Papa Byrd on electric guitar, backed by a band that includes his grandson Clayton on harmonica. It’s amazing how fast we fall for this intergenerational duo, in part because their shared love for music gets delineated in such richly resonant ways. Used to more withholding adults, Clayton appreciates how “his grandfather [always] broke it down, plain,” addressing him as a full-fledged person who can hear hard truths—including the unwelcome news that Clayton is not yet “seasoned” enough to solo alongside the adult Bluesmen. Meanwhile, Williams-Garcia shows the same type of respect for her young audience. Using free indirect discourse, she allows middle-grade readers to hear both sides of the upsetting story that unfolds after Cool Papa dies and Clayton and his mother disagree sharply about what should happen next. Such ringing honesty aligns Clayton Byrd with blues tunes that transmute fierce sorrow into something beautiful without downplaying the pain of loss.
Art Section Editor
Toyin Ojih Odutola, The Treatment 2015–2017
Toyin Ojih Odutola regrets that the art market pushes the 43 parts of The Treatment to be sold as individual portraits. After all, she intended to show how people in some groups are seen as individuals, and others not, also because they are assigned to a group. To do this, Ojih Odutola accomplished a seemingly impossible task between 2015 and 2017. She managed to make 43 9 x 12 inch pictures of young white male celebrities look at once like portraits, and also on the verge of being indistinguishable from each other. With nothing but black ballpoint pen, white paper, and astounding skill, Ojih Odutola gives her subjects the eponymous “treatment” of her title. Not only are their faces colored black, in a brilliantly flayed topography of inventive marks, but she also, ever so slightly, skews their features. The same individualist habits she provokes are those she thwarts. Viewers reveal to themselves how far individualism is from universal. Collectors, notably, have demanded to know whose portrait they have bought
Her tactics implicate her audience, and also suggest a possibility. What if, as in Ojih Odutola’s alternative artistic universe, the currently most powerful people on earth could hardly be recognized? Each of the 43 almost-portraits does its job. Yet only the whole series reveals the full political power of the project, which depends on Ojih Odutola’s unerring, perfectly calibrated, consistency of choice. Patterns of pose, angle, cropping, and details are all quietly enlisted to challenge racial boundaries. The book that preserves the totality of the series is, therefore, precious. Moreover, the book includes an illuminating “summary” by the eloquent artist, an ideologically strong dialogue with the poet Claudia Rankine, an apparently neutral object list whose impersonal laconic repetitions perform the project, and a witty black-on-black binding.
Urbanism Section Editor
Malcolm Harris, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials
The millennial generation is often maligned for being spendthrift, shiftless, and self-involved. From obsession with fancy coffee to constant selfie-snapping, the tropes of millennial culture are unflattering. The new book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials by Malcolm Harris argues that, contrary to popular opinion, millennials are working their tails off: often for less money and uncertain long-term prospects. Harris artfully shows that millennials are forced to invest ever more in their own training while companies reap the profits. Harris reorients our view of millennial culture, focusing on social media not as a fun pastime but a frenetic means to self-brand and generate content. The 2008 crisis and the looming threat of massive student debt also play into the story. By the end, millennial behavior does not seem frivolous but desperate: the coping mechanism of young people who, for the first time in three generations, may be facing collective downward mobility.
Ben Brooks, Lolito
I’m currently teaching Lolita, and while looking up adaptations I stumbled across Ben Brooks’ Lolito. This 2013 novel portrays protagonist Etgar’s adolescent relationships, first with a girl his own age and then with a 35-year-old woman he initially meets in a chatroom that continues IRL. I’ve just started and Etgar and his pals already epitomize toxic masculinity and misogyny (perhaps normalized as requisite features of male adolescence), and I’m interested to see how the text’s flipping of gender may disrupt and rewrite the themes of the urtext, as opposed to presenting a mirror image set in the age of the internet.
Ben Macintyre, Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of WWII
This is one of the most interesting, amusing, and enjoyable pieces of writing I have read in a very long time. The author speaks to the history of World War II by shedding light on the most inconceivable spy story of that period, in which a group of British intelligence officers come together to carry out an espionage operation with the objective of tricking German troops to believe the Allied forces would invade Southern Europe by way of Greece instead of Sicily. In the hopes of deceiving the highest levels of the German military so that German forces would be dispersed and less concentrated on Sicilian territory, British intelligence led by naval intelligence officer Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley of M15 decide to use a corpse, equipped with misleading information and dropped off the coast of Spain in order to reach the Germans. This book speaks to the fascinating role of espionage in the context of modern history and warfare, while simultaneously providing a window into the creativity and imagination of these individuals who were determined to execute such a bizarre scheme.
Niv M. Sultan
Peter Heller, The Dog Stars
The narrator of Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, Hig, likens his surroundings to a book he has read many, many times. He would recognize if something were amiss, he says. “I would know. A sentence out of place. A gap. Two periods where there should be one.”
The Dog Stars, which chronicles life after a super-flu’s apocalyptic devastation, is an exceedingly lonely affair. Sure, Hig has Bangley—a neighbor and ally—and Bangley has Hig, but the men are still fundamentally alone. Two periods where there should be one.
As Hig describes loss, nature, and the wonders of flying a 1956 Cessna plane over a largely empty world, his minimalist narration comes to resemble the hum of an engine; its deep rumbling punctuated by staccato stops and starts. The result is beguiling.
- In fact it seems fair to call this a modernist strain of contemporary literature, of which New Directions and Dalkey Archive are the most prominent champions. ↩