Here at Public Books, our editorial staff and contributors are hard at work to provide readers with compelling, thought-provoking articles, but when the workday is done, what is actually on our nightstands? Here we bring you, in our own words, a new behind-the-scenes look at what we have been reading this month.
Elif Shafak, The Architect’s ApprenticeOrhan Pamuk, Istanbul
I most enjoy reading about places after I’ve visited them, so after a recent trip to Istanbul, I look forward to reading novels by Orhan Kemal and Burket Uzuner. I just finished Elif Shafak’s The Architect’s Apprentice, a vivid if overplotted historical novel whose characters must negotiate the intrigues and constraints of Ottoman imperial court life. And I’m currently lingering over Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, a series of extended sketches that present a city steeped in mordant nostalgia.
Show Me a Hero, created by David Simon and Bill Zorzi
I just finished watching Show Me a Hero, David Simon and Bill Zorzi’s HBO miniseries. Simon and Zorzi have managed to dramatize, through a very unlikely cast of television characters, one of the greatest issues of American politics—racial segregation in housing—that is at the center of our politics today. Never doubt the old adage “All politics is local.” The show dives in deep, all through the fight over a couple of hundred low-income apartments to be located in the white section of Yonkers, NY. White residents show up in court, at the polls, and at their African American and Latino neighbors’ apartments, spilling over with racial bile they cleaned up with the language of defending “property values.” The apartments are finally built in the 1990s, but the show’s story traces a thread through today’s stories in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, and beyond.
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard, translated from the Italian by Archibald Colquhoun
I’m revisiting this, the original and sole published English translation of Lampedusa’s widely loved only novel, in anticipation of talking to some college students next week about my translation of the author’s few pieces of shorter fiction. A few quibbles about this version’s language aside, the work’s seemingly effortless blend of grand historical sweep and profound empathy for its characters has thrilled me all over again.
Norman Rush, Mating
All the speculation about Elena Ferrante’s true identity has reignited an old debate: can male authors write convincing female characters? If you want proof that at least a few of them can, look no further than Mating. The psychology of the narrator, an American anthropologist manqué living in Botswana, never feels false, and although the plot centers on her fascination with a man—the enigmatic founder of a utopian-feminist desert community—it’s the narrator who steals the show.
Stephen King, The Shining
’Tis the season, I suppose. As a real fraidy cat, I do not read or watch very much horror, but I had to pick this up. It has always attracted me in a strange, magnetic way. Maybe because I know Stephen King’s work is also valued for skillful storytelling, in addition to its ability to curdle the blood; maybe because we share a birthday. Who knows! Anyway, I got the feeling I was missing out on a great pastime. Having no experience in the genre, I had a wary naïveté—or maybe overconfidence would be a better term, or some paradoxical combination of all of that—and I could not imagine how scary a book could be. I still can’t quite fathom it, and I will be honest: I have not gotten very far. I fear what’s ahead. I see it sitting on my nightstand and am filled with foreboding … Is this how it’s supposed to go? Help.
Charles Glass, Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring
There is so much going on in the Middle East right now—so many forces at work, so many competing interests, so much cynicism and deceit from the world’s leading powers—it can seem an impossible nut to crack for the layman. To help unpack the situation, I’m reading the latest from Charles Glass, one of the finest and most accomplished journalists currently covering the Middle East. In it, he combines history, personal experience, and political analysis into a lucid and illuminating study of the ongoing conflicts in the region. Though short, Syria Burning is a powerful elegy for the Arab Spring, as well as for any real prospects of a peaceful settlement in the ancient region of Syria and the Levant. It’s definitely not a fun read, but it’s both fascinating and horrifying (and shaming as a citizen of the United States), and is highly recommended for anyone interested in a realistic picture of the current state of Syria and the Middle East.
Sarah Dowling, DOWN
This book masterfully captures the task Dowling sets for herself to be “machine-like but utterly sincere.” Her redeployment of the language of pop songs into her poetry is thoughtful and clever and funny—and the ease with which she slides between Frank O’Hara and Frank Ocean has made me think endlessly about the affinities between the two.
Josh Malerman, Bird Box
Lately I’ve been fighting the urge to cover all the windows in my apartment with blankets, and it has nothing to do with the cold. Bird Box is a weird hybrid of horror, thriller, and post-apocalyptic sci-fi that blends some genre hallmarks (a band of strangers trying to survive in isolation, an unknown threat decimating the population, a cellar full of canned goods) into a story that is unlike anything I’ve read before. Malerman keeps you in the dark—literally—about what the real threat is, but here’s the gist: across the globe, people start going berserk and killing everyone around them or themselves after they see … something. The fact that I’m reading this book for the second time doesn’t make it any less creepy.
Mohsin Hamid, Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London
I have read every book Hamid has published since he debuted with Moth Smoke, a book I highly recommend, in 2000. Discontent and Its Civilizations is different in that it is a collection of essays and articles that Hamid has written over the years. Some are insightful and engaging. Others, not so much. Hamid is at his best when he’s introspective and explores his duality. He lived his early childhood in San Francisco and shifted to Lahore at the age of nine. He has since lived in New York and London. It is when he reflects on his encounters with Pakistani, British, and American culture that we get to know Hamid as a person, and as a Pakistani struggling with his identity and, at times, nationality. This also leads to moments of hilarity and somberness, sometimes simultaneously. But when it comes to politics or arts, some of the ideas have been discussed to the point where it is tiring to read them again. Still, it is definitely worth a read.
Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century
LeMenager approaches the topic of oil as a literature professor, grappling with the changing narrative of petroleum in American culture from the mid-20th century to our present moment of “tough oil,” when “ultradeep” drilling has unlocked new, hard-to-reach reserves and even greater environmental destruction. She looks at how this narrative is shaped by a range of media representations spanning popular film, oil spill photography, and, most interestingly, entire museums dedicated to the fossil-fuel industry in Texas and elsewhere. In an appendix, she even charts the energy costs that went into the book’s production and distribution. This last move made me wish LeMenager’s analysis was more widely available and in other formats (the hardcover, at least, is quite expensive—mine was a library copy).