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
Rachel Sherman, Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence
Given our current gilder-in-chief, the idea that wealth needs justification might seem a vestige of an earlier world, but Rachel Sherman’s book exposes an American cultural fixation. It is not enough to simply earn lots of money; that money must appear morally sanctioned. In Trump’s universe, the fact of his fortune proves his business acumen and his (self-trumpeted) smarts and savvy provide the moral warrant. Sherman’s interviewees—wealthy, liberal New Yorkers—mostly reject this circular reasoning, but they nonetheless work to justify their prosperity. They modulate their consumer choices, reveling in bargains and framing indulgences as “treats.” They rationalize their children’s advantages by teaching them to be respectful of others and to recognize the responsibilities that come with privilege. They work hard to interpret themselves as deserving of their advantages. Sherman argues that moralizing about money is itself a problem. Most in her study would agree that the inequality we face today is unsustainable. The notion that the rich deserve the money they accumulate, however, gives grounds to the status quo. Only fundamental institutional changes, particularly in taxation (and not the ones we will get with this Congress), will change the situation. No moral arguments necessary.
MANAGING EDITOR AND LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION SECTION EDITOR
John le Carré, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
A few weeks back, in an airport on my way home from a literary translation conference, I somewhat guiltily stopped into a bookstore hoping for something more engrossing than the volume I had brought, a contemporary short story collection translated from the Korean. I had started several of the stories and failed to be drawn into any of them, or even entirely understand what was going on. I longed to be absorbed in a good novel, and le Carré’s most famous book, widely regarded as a paragon of its genre, seemed to be just the thing.
It was sort of the thing. The early chapters were bracingly close-lipped and immersive; I duly felt the icy October wind and Cold War paranoia on my neck. But the multiple chapters of exposition served up via interrogation, the feebly rendered love story, and especially the way the double and triple games the principle characters speculatively attribute to others all come to pass, virtually as described the first time around, contrived to make the novel’s ingeniously complex plotting feel mechanical and over-explained.
Perhaps I should give those Korean short stories another shot.
Senior Editor and Global Coordinator
David Blight, The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845–1877
If you, like me, were listening to David Blight’s extraordinary Civil War 101 podcast this summer, you wouldn’t have been surprised by the demands to tear down Confederate monuments or the frenzy to build new ones. Blight is a professor at Yale, and he’s best known for his book Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. The book argues that the South won the Civil War, since it is their narrative that continues to dominate the history books: states rights mattered more than slavery, the soldiers on both sides were heroic, the collapse of voting rights in Reconstruction was inevitable.
That’s all deadly hogwash, and Blight makes you see the drama and carnage of the battle along with the high political stakes before, during, and after the conflict. Did you know that Robert E. Lee kidnapped free African Americans into slavery during his campaigns? Or that, after the war, former Confederates returned as congressmen to the Capital wearing their rebel uniforms?
There’s something marvelous about having these stories piped quietly into your headphones—whether in a packed subway car or late-night grocery store—as if this podcast were really a coded transmission from a distant ally. For your ears only: a defiant, righteous, abolitionist samizdat, the secret history of our country, secretly restored to us now in our time of need. Well, glory, glory, hallelujah.
Children’s & YA Literature Section Editor
Claire LaZebnik, Things I Should Have Known
Thanks in part to the activism of people with autism and their families, our understanding of this neurodevelopmental disorder has advanced considerably since the 1950s, when doctors blamed cold-hearted “refrigerator mothers” for causing their children’s social challenges and behavioral idiosyncrasies. Among other things, we now have a helpful metaphor that captures how autism manifests in myriad ways: we say that people are “on the autism spectrum,” situated somewhere in a highly variable continuum.
In her wonderfully moving and entertaining young adult novel, Things I Should Have Known, Claire LaZebnik chronicles how a pretty, popular teenager named Chloe decides that her autistic older sister Ivy needs a boyfriend. Like Jane Austen’s Emma, LaZebnik’s enterprising young matchmaker proves both socially competent and strikingly clueless. By having a neurotypical, heterosexual character miss critical social cues and thereby cause pain to people she loves, LaZebnik reminds us that knowing what other people are thinking is not just hard for some people on the autism spectrum: it is a challenge for all of us.
Because LaZebnik features not just one, but multiple characters who are on the spectrum, she gives us a sense of the diversity of this population. At the same time, she illustrates how having a sibling on the spectrum can be a lonely experience for teens whose peers do not share a similar situation. Chloe slowly overcomes her own self-censoring by way of a sexy, slow burn of a romance with a smart but surly classmate named David, who treats both her and Ivy as full-fledged human beings with voices worth hearing. By placing casual acts of cruelty by truly thoughtless bystanders alongside well-intentioned errors made by better-informed characters such as Chloe and David, LaZebnik reminds us that the failure to respect the humanity of people on the spectrum is a spectrum of its own.
Art Section Editor
Nobuo Tsuji and Takashi Murakami, Nobuo Tsuji vs Takashi Murakami Battle Royale! Japanese Art History, translated from the Japanese by Aaron Rio
Learn Japanese art history in 21 rollicking lessons, feeling contemporary all the while. An august art historian, Nobuo Tsuji, challenges the wildly successful artist Takashi Murakami to 21 rounds of intellectual combat. Tsuji presents one Japanese icon after another, and Murakami responds to each with a work of his own. Their charmingly false modesty engages us in their dialogue. For those with qualms about Murakami’s other projects (such as Vuitton handbags), his joyful attention to the past offers consolation. Tsuji tempts him by advancing a fiery, erotic, superflat, eccentric lineage of Japanese art instead of the standard wabi sabi canon of tea bowls and serene screens. Its mascot is one of the great dragons of all time, by Shohaku, made in 1763. An inky 25-foot monster with bristle-edged bulging eyeballs and roiling scales grabs at us with a giant claw. Murakami answers with cute colors blazing. An exhibition has been made of the newly translated book, which opened at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on October 18 and runs until April 18, so this is your chance to see the real objects involved, both the great old ones and Murakami’s.
Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, and Noelle Stevenson, illustrated by Brooke A. Allen, Lumberjanes, Vol. 1: Beware The Kitten Holy
I recently started Lumberjanes, a comic book series with 40+ issues created in 2014 by Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, and Noelle Stevenson. The series follows a group of girls, some of whom are queer, as they attend Lumberjane Scout camp, a place filled with canoeing, hiking, and a range of supernatural encounters. The stories provide multidimensional characters who model survival, pleasure, and community, and for whom acceptance of their gender identities and sexual orientations is a given. Perhaps a utopic imagining, but in a world where it remains unsafe to inhabit queer childhood (check out Will & Grace’s recent episode “Grandpa Jack” for a different type of comic take on the policing gay kids remain susceptible to), content like Lumberjanes offers LGBTQ youth possibilities and imaginings not always available in their own communities.
Christina B. Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence
Safe Space interweaves the history of LGBT activism against antigay street violence with political developments in the management of urban populations and real estate. Because of my interests in policing and patrol, I was struck by the safe streets patrol groups that Hanhardt details in the book’s second chapter. These groups act as a useful reminder of the ways in which marginalized communities, in trying to protect themselves from violence, are capable of working with state power to harm other vulnerable populations. Safe Space opens up many avenues for thinking deeply about the practice of vigilantism: How much can and should the subject position of actors pursuing justice outside of the state affect how they are viewed? What work do fantasy, imagination, and threat do in distinguishing different modalities of vigilantism?