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’ve been reading this month.
Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
This portrait of searing poverty leaves no doubt that the denial of safe, clean, and affordable housing has become America’s core shame. Filthy and expensive inner city apartments and trailer park residences are goldmines, too, pumping cash into landlords’ pockets. Sheltering tenants with no other options, landlords use feeble excuses to charge for damages, wantonly miscalculate debts to their advantage, and then turn out the renters who fail to pay. A memorable historical fact sets the stage for the book. In the 1930s during the Great Depression, evictions drew huge protests, galvanizing the neighborhood into action. Today, Desmond shows, eviction has become an utterly routine fact of urban life, leaving us all to ponder our own blindness.
Emma Donoghue, Frog Music
Working last month on PB’s fantastic interview with Donoghue, about turning her best-selling 2010 novel Room into the pretty widely acclaimed film of the same name, convinced me to seek out a second book by the author. Closest at hand was 2014’s Frog Music, which Rebecca Steinitz reviewed for us that year (along with a handful of other recent works of historical fiction). Inspired by an unsolved murder in 1870s San Francisco, the novel teems with alluring, messy, dirty life, big personalities and smallpox, jealous lovers, tall bicycles, and frogs of all stripes. The two characters at its heart, the gunned-down bohemian Jenny Bonnet and her bosom friend Blanche Beunon, a French burlesque dancer, are lovingly drawn. But unlike in Room and due in part perhaps to the true-story premise, very little forward momentum is sustained here, occasionally leading me to a feel a bit trapped in the tale’s amber limbo.
Larissa MacFarquhar, Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help
If you’re drawn to the questions of moral philosophy but not its abstract methods, this book is for you. MacFarquhar, a staff writer at the New Yorker, approaches an age-old question—what does it mean to live an ethical life?—through profiles of extreme “do-gooders”: the couple who adopts 22 children; the man who gives away almost all of his income; the nurse who risks her life to aid a poor community. MacFarquhar often uses novelistic tools like free indirect style to render these real-life characters: “From then on, he figured out the moral thing to do not by consulting inviolable principles but by thinking about consequences. Yes, it was generally better to be honest, but if Anne Frank is in your house and the Nazis are at the door, you lie.” But she’s never tempted, as a novelist might be, to treat her subjects with irony. She avoids either sentimentalizing or scoffing at them, the latter being an all too common response to do-gooders. Why is that, anyway? In part, it’s because “nobody likes to be reminded, even implicitly, of his own selfishness.”
Oliver Sacks, On The Move: A Life
The late Oliver Sacks was one of the most erudite and elegant writers of popular science. His skill lay in writing brilliant and colorful personal narratives, used to explore some facet of human psychology. This ability transfers very well as he turns inward in this last memoir, released at the tail end of his life. Filled with revelations, including his homosexuality, repressed until late into his life, and beautiful writing, On The Move (previously reviewed by Lawrence Cohen for PB) marks a fitting end to Sacks’s long and distinguished career.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill
As a longtime reader and fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work, I have so far been delighted by this annotated edition of the autobiography Wilder would later split up and adapt for children as the Little House series. The original manuscript has been transcribed and is housed in a coffee table-sized book featuring photographs of the family and relevant historical figures and settings, as well as Hill’s meticulous annotations. These annotations accomplish the difficult task of being tonally appropriate for both those who wish to reverently revisit the world created in the Little House books and those who are interested in analyzing the work in a literary-critical vein. Her textual analysis also lays to rest many of the theories and claims against Wilder’s control over and vision for her project, and I hope that the book proves to be a publication that paves the way to more scholarship on Wilder in the coming years.
Molly Crabapple, Drawing Blood
With rich prose and stunning illustrations, this memoir starts first as one woman’s journey towards self-actualization, and ends up being a fascinating story of activism through art. Crabapple is at once a private and deeply confessional narrator, as she reveals her darkest selves and yet still leaves the reader sure that there is more to tell. The book’s strength lies in its synthesis of word and image, and in the way that it opens doors to worlds that so often are firmly shut.
C.L.R. James, A New Notion: Two Works by C. L. R. James: Every Cook Can Govern and The Invading Socialist Society, edited by Noel Ignatiev
Originally written in 1947 by the Johnson-Forest Tendency—a Trotskyist group comprised of James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee Boggs—Society engages debates within the Trotskyist Fourth International. This brief, brutal polemic, which James called one of his “key documents,” interprets the Soviet Union through the prism of “state capitalism,” while remaining optimistic about the forms of class-based resistance that would develop in response to it. The density of reference to now arcane debates between postwar US-based Trotskyists renders the text a tad opaque at times. But Society should not be overlooked, if only because it provides such a precise, concise snapshot of James’s main theoretical prerogatives.
The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap
“I felt inexplicably drunk and frustrated by the impossible whiteness of the room I found myself in,” writes Simone White in her contribution to this incredibly important and poignant collection of letters assembled by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda. The Racial Imaginary is the print counterpart of “Open Letter,” an online forum on race and art created by Rankine in 2011, which asked a diverse group of poets, writers, and artists to discuss the role of race in the creative process. Francisco Aragón, Bhanu Kapil, Lacy M. Johnson, Dawn Lundy Martin, and others offer their reflections on how race functions in their work, and they challenge us to join their conversation. Reading this anthology prompts us to reckon with complicated issues around race and gender, and to reconsider the depictions of racial, social, and political identities at work in our own art and writing.