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
Denise Kiernan, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II
Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race
It’s no secret that Silicon Valley has a woman problem. The sexism at companies like Uber is notorious. With brogrammer culture rampant, the “hidden” and “untold” histories of women in science and technology gain ever greater importance. Women’s labor fed the Manhattan Project and the moonshot, leading achievements in tech’s 20th century ascendance, Keirnan and Shetterly write. Even though military secrecy covered much of these women’s work, I puzzle over the titles’ trope of concealment. The detonation of nuclear bombs and the lunar landing were world-historic howls of American might. Once cover was no longer necessary, the women, along with their male bosses and co-workers, shared their stories with neighbors, friends, students, sorority sisters, and the press. We might ask, then, not how these stories went untold, but how they were rendered invisible.
Ideology can offer an answer. In the masculine world of engineering, women represent “matter out of place,” the anthropologist Mary Douglas might have said. Then, as now, gendered distinctions between “hard” aptitudes and “soft” skills sentence women to Human Resources positions, or exile them altogether. Femaleness and engineering weren’t always so culturally opposed, however. These divisions hardened with the bomb and the rocket, the very successes NASA and Oak Ridge’s female mathematicians, physicists, secretaries, and manual workers nurtured. The fire of war broke down barriers for those women. Silicon Valley still needs to hack its own social order. Then, maybe stories like these can be permanently unveiled.
Managing Editor and Literature in Translation Section Editor
Jenny Erpenbeck, Go, Went, Gone, translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
Since first discovering Erpenbeck’s books several years ago I have consistently admired but not loved them. Yet I am definitely falling for her latest novel, due out in English this September, the tale of a widowed and recently retired classics professor who becomes involved with some African refugees in Berlin. Listening to their stories, he finds, is much more exhausting than delivering lectures; each account exposes the gaping lacunae in his knowledge of the continent’s staggering linguistic, geographical, religious, and cultural diversity. The professor is learning so much he’s like a child again, vulnerable and disoriented, facilitating his empathy with the displaced men and the obscure gauntlet they must run to find some peace and retain their dignity. In one instance, he “imagines what it would be like to have someone explaining these laws to him in Arabic”; in another, he muses that “the Africans probably had no idea who Hitler was, but even so: only if they survived Germany now would Hitler truly have lost the war.”
Food & the Environment Section Editor
Tommy Pico, Nature Poem
There’s this moment in the Prelude where Wordsworth gears up to cross the Alps. Some lyrical anticipation ensues. But a long lunch and a few missteps later he crosses a stream and is told by a passing “peasant” that he’s descended a bit too far. Turns out he’s made the crossing, but at a lower altitude, without the view, and without the drama. Wordsworth’s letdown raises any number of questions, but perhaps most profoundly this one: what good is a nature poem anyway? Tommy Pico’s most recent book is haunted by this question. Pico provocatively refuses the genre’s longstanding gestures toward innocence and illumination, and chooses instead to situate it in a long history of colonial and environmental violence: “It seems foolish to discuss nature w/o talking about endemic poverty / which seems foolish to discuss w/o talking about corporations given / human agency which seems foolish to discuss w/o talking about / colonialism which seems foolish to discuss w/o talking about misogyny.”
He’s right, of course: there’s something off about the nature poem, something suspect in its ongoing effacement of the kind of politics this book sets out to revivify. At the same time (and this is the pull of the book) Pico isn’t immune from the genre’s seductions, and it is this ambiance that gives the poem its depth and vital energy. Is it possible, he asks, to have it both ways—to remain aware and embattled and engaged, and at the same time to chill out and just be “a faggot on a Saturday?” At its core, the book offers a vision of nature that is necessary for the times—one that is queer, openhearted, alive to politics and history, and also to the pleasures, resentments, and complications of everyday life. Nature, in Nature Poem, is less a passive backdrop and more a fraught mesh of connection and missed connection, violence, pollution, humor, temptation, anger, and sex. It both determines and is determined by how we relate to ourselves, and to the histories we inherit. As Pico puts it, “you become a little bit of everything you brush / against.” In a way, it belongs on your nightstand, on the border between public and private, banal and suggestive. The book’s energy is restless, relentless, impish, and honed. Keep it where you charge your phone. Keep it where you keep your lube.
Global Black History Section Editor
Judith Weisenfeld, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration
The early 20th century witnessed a significant flowering of black religious expressions in northern cities, including the rise of alternative religious groups such as the Moorish Science Temple, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, the Ethiopian Hebrews, and the Nation of Islam. In Judith Weisenfeld’s New World A-Coming, they take center stage as the author traces their development and influence in black communities from the early 1920s to the late 1940s. Against the backdrop of the Great Migration, which drew millions of black Southerners to the North (and West), these religious groups gained a significant following of black men and women residing in major Northern cities such as New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Challenging mainstream ideas about black history and racial identity, these religious groups rejected the racial classification of “Negro” and emphasized the full complexity of the black experience beyond histories of slavery and oppression. Drawing on extensive primary research, Weisenfeld uncovers the stories of a diverse group of religious leaders and followers, and in so doing highlights the richness and complexity of black religious history in the United States.
Children’s & YA Literature Section Editor
Corinna Luyken, The Book of Mistakes
It’s a truism that we all make mistakes. Yet as Kathryn Schulz points out in her brilliant book Being Wrong (2010), we often treat error as a shameful deviation from the status quo rather than a routine and potentially revelatory phenomenon. Corinna Luyken’s luminously beautiful new picture book The Book of Mistakes encourages child readers to adopt a more accepting attitude toward error. Facing up to the intimidating emptiness of the blank page, the artist-narrator of this book slowly starts to sketch a person. She quickly goes wrong by making one eye too big; then overcorrects by making the other eye even bigger. But these and a series of other comic slip-ups get transmuted before our eyes into the very stuff of narrative. The goggle-like glasses crafted to fit those eyes and other similarly ingenious work-arounds all contribute to the heroine’s emergence as a wild-eyed aeronaut partying with other wacky balloonists in a gorgeously drawn tree scene reminiscent of the classic lunacy of P. D. Eastman’s Go, Dog. Go! (1961). Error emerges in The Book of Mistakes as the wellspring of creativity, an enabling message for aspiring artists and flawed human beings of all ages.
Print/Screen Section Editor
Michael Harris, Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World
Michael Harris, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, The Distraction Addiction: Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul
Summer is the time to come to grips with busy idleness. Make that iDleness, to believe several thoughtful polemics against digital timewasting that fold personal confessions into social-scientific research with a dusting of self-help. Michael Harris’s lyrical new Solitude builds on his trenchant 2014 The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. Alex Pang’s Rest leans more heavily on capsule biographies than did his 2013 essay that launched a thousand apps, The Distraction Addiction. Marketing pressure to package history as lifehacking may explain why even as learned a researcher as Pang mistakes social privilege for moral character: Darwin didn’t take long walks just because he had a contemplative temperament, he took long walks because he had a housekeeper. But Pang and Harris together drive home the crucial point that less is more, whether it comes to your Contacts folder or your calendar. All four books deserve a place on the nightstand, if the phone chargers leave any room.
Elif Batuman, The Idiot
Does language shape us or us it? Is reality limited by or made possible through words? Selin, the protagonist of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, grapples with these questions as she begins her undergraduate career at Harvard, where she wants to be a writer and dawdles her way through language courses, an inexplicable romantic attachment to an entirely boring narcissist, and travels abroad. The novel’s form also reflects an investment in these questions, as Batuman takes her time to observe and play with description, even at the expense of the narrative unfolding according to any prescriptive or expected pace. I find myself most wanting to tell Selin, as I would a toddler, to “Use your words!” as she happens upon the events and people who populate her life, but perhaps it is exactly this urge upon which Batuman is inviting readers to reflect.
Graham Greene, The Comedians
Aboard the Medea, a cargo ship of the Royal Netherlands Steamship Company bound for Haiti from New York City, distrust reigns. There’s Mr. Smith, a former US presidential candidate reluctant to divulge why he’s on his way to Haiti with his wife, the impassible Mrs. Smith. There’s “Major Jones,” a humorous Englishman rumored to be involved in shady business. And there’s our narrator, Mr. Brown, the most mysterious of them all: he owns a hotel in Port-au-Prince, he says, but staunchly refuses to tell anyone on the ship, and the readers themselves, more about his story and the purpose of his trip. Just like the characters of Graham Greene’s 1966 novel, I feel anxious as they prepare to disembark in Port-au-Prince, where the rule of François Duvalier, or “Papa Doc,” casts a terrifying shadow. But I am too curious to stop: the book takes me back to Haiti, which I briefly called home in 2014, through a story set in one of its most defining eras.
Former Editorial Intern
Thomas Meinecke, The Church of John F. Kennedy
A wild collage of German immigrants’ letters from the 1800s, theoretical reflections on America’s racial, ethnic, and sexual identities, theological treatises from around the Reformation period, and occasional attempts at a narrative, Thomas Meinecke’s first novel accompanied me on a recent road trip through Louisiana. The book follows the independent scholar Wenzel Assmann on his search for the traces of German heritage in the American South. Assmann finances this trip by selling old German telephone books from the trunk of his dilapidated Chevy, in the hope that the inhabitants of villages called Breslau, Weimar, or Des Allemands would be eager to find their last names in them. In the meanwhile, his native Germany reunifies, evoking dreadful fantasies in Assmann, who warns whoever wants to listen of the dangers of a “Fourth Reich.” Meinecke is also a DJ, and his trademark writing style is more associative sampling than careful crafting of a narrative, and it comes to full fruition in this debut—hence, we find excerpts from a book entitled Catholische Geistlichkeit der deutschen Zunge in den Vereinigten Staaten next to long deliberations on Cajun music and the revolutionary ambitions of a transgender couple in a Georgia trailer park. Whoever finds delight in the odd and arcane should pick up this book, written by an author gifted with a unique ability to convey their magnificence. It made it the best road trip I’ve ever had.