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 this month.
Editor in Chief
Susie Steiner, Missing, Presumed
My definition of a good mystery novel is not one that keeps me up all night but one that gets me out of bed to finish it early on a Sunday morning. This book did that. Like so many excellent modern crime thrillers, it’s set in England (mostly London and Cambridge). Like the standard-setting work of P. D. James and Tana French, Missing, Presumed alternates between several points of view, taking us into the minds of police, suspects, and victims’ family members. Far less predictable than the vastly overrated Girl on the Train, this book is the perfect choice for those disappointed that J.K Rowling decided to spend this past year writing a Harry Potter play instead of the next Cormorant Strike novel.
Tom McCarthy, Remainder
Zadie Smith’s 2008 essay on Tom McCarthy’s first book, “Two Paths for the Novel,” in the New York Review of Books, has stuck so tenaciously to McCarthy’s work since that the New Yorker was finally obliged, what with all the whispering, to run an essay last year about how tenaciously it has stuck. (In full disclosure, mention has also been made elsewhere.) A lesser novel, perhaps, would be lost in all the hubbub. But then that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Remainder is not a lesser novel.
Garth Risk Hallberg, City on Fire
Hallberg’s doorstopper of a debut novel offers an immersive drama about the intersection of class, race, and counterculture in 1970s New York. When a precocious teenager is shot in Central Park on New Year’s Eve, the consequences ripple through the lives of an ensemble cast, including the gay apostate heir to a financial empire, a Jewish Long Island teen who sees Jesus, an alcoholic has-been journalist, and a Polio-bent detective investigating it all (to mention only a few). Hallberg masterfully juggles the proliferation of sub-plots, and while there are probably more pages than necessary, it is rare to find such a vibrantly realized world.
Renata Adler, Speedboat
I started Renata Adler’s 1976 novel last night, and, despite being only seventeen pages in, am already certain that it is the best thing that I’ve read this month. I would have gotten further along except I kept backtracking to read passages aloud to my girlfriend. Like this one about a subway station in East New York: “I don’t know how many people have ever seen or passed through Broadway Junction. It seems to me one of the world’s true wonders: nine crisscrossing, overlapping elevated tracks, high in the air, with subway cars screeching, despite uncanny slowness, over thick rusted girders, to distant sordid places. It might have been created by an architect with an Erector Set and recurrent amnesia, and city ordinances and graft, this senseless ruined monster of all subways, in the air.”
Shulem Deen, All Who Go Do Not Return
The author chronicles the years-long process of his disenchantment with Hasidic Judaism—an emotional, philosophical, and mental shift that leads him to be accused of heresy and ultimately to get expelled from his sect’s fiercely insular town in upstate New York (think 18-year-old boys and girls learning for the first time how sex works in preparation for their upcoming marriage; picture young, twenty-something couples with 12 children; imagine men without high school diplomas trying to support these families). Buy it for a flooring glimpse into the wildly traditional life of the Skverer Hasidim; finish it for an impressive articulation of one man’s fight to find happiness beyond everything familiar to him.
Donna Tartt, The Secret History
Before Donna Tartt re-emerged on the literary scene in 2014 (to the joy of book clubs everywhere) with The Goldfinch, she wrote The Secret History. Her first novel, published in 1992, follows a group of six Classics students at a small Northeastern college whose field of study leads them down a grim path. While the novel contains a certain degree of crime and suspense, I would hardly classify it as a “whodunit”—Tartt eschews the grand reveals and “a-ha” moments that characterize such novels by essentially revealing the outcome in the first few chapters. In Tartt’s hands, the plot serves as more of an undertow, pulling you in deeper and deeper in the hopes of (in my case) understanding the various motives at play. It’s difficult to discuss the plot without spoiling this enticing progression, so I will leave it at that. I will say, however, that by the time I finished the novel, my order of The Goldfinch was already coming in the mail.