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.
Urbanism SECTION EDITOR
Tony Wood, Russia without Putin: Money, Power and the Myths of the New Cold War
The great-man theory of history is recognized as intellectually lazy but it still holds a lot of water in journalism circles and at the State Department. Tony Wood’s concise and powerfully written new book on contemporary Russia attempts to wean the reader from a diet of “Putinology.” It convincingly shows that Russia is following a path dependency set up from privatization predating Putin’s time in office. Wood illuminates Putin’s massive influence while warning against a reverse cult of personality: something American media sometimes carry to an extreme in ways that resemble Cold Warriors’ attempts to portray Russia in an Orientalist image. Russia without Putin is essential reading not just for Russophiles (and Russophobes) but for anyone interested in how the marketization of post-socialist Europe has continuing, and often negative, consequences.
TV Section Editor
Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties
Reading this book of eerie short and longish stories feels like being smothered in velvet. Each of Machado’s worlds is a hair or two different from our own, and each is distinct from the next, yet they hang together through the strength of the writer’s commitment to undermining the sanitization of sanity. Law and Order: SVU morphs into gothic comedy horror, peopled by inextinguishable body doubles. A former Girl Scout attends a lakeside writer’s residency and gets lost in the mist of her own mind. Transparent women are woven into fancy dresses. A wife’s head falls off when her husband removes the ribbon laced around her neck, but we finally get the story from her point of view. Trauma makes the inner monologues of porn film protagonists audible as ghostly voiceovers. Machado has a gift for simile. She writes of “bones like dried spaghetti,” a sore that spreads “like an amoeba preparing for reproduction.” But while her descriptions of such bodily “abjections” veer into the grotesque, they don’t serve to elevate the natural. Embodiment is a disturbing, luscious, and always tricky business.
B-Sides Series Editor
Anna Burns, Milkman
“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.” Kwame Anthony Appiah was right to call Anna Burns’s Milkman “a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humour,” right to call it “utterly distinctive,” and most of all, as chair of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, right to single it out. Not only is it the first Northern Irish novel to win that prize, it is the only book I have ever read to make the Troubles into two things: an investigation of sexual brutality and a laughing matter. In part by refusing to use proper or “proper” names for anything it describes (the protagonist is “middle sister,” her jogging partner is “third brother-in-law,” and the Troubles are sometimes “these Sorrows”), Burns does something amazing. She unceasingly reminds you how strange and destructive and troubling the world of 1970s Catholic Belfast is. Yet she also invites readers to check their preconceptions, to sit down on a rickety chair for a while, try not to fall over into the stale beer on the floor, and to have a bit of a laugh. Somebody McSomebody, how does she pull that off?
LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION SECTION EDITOR
Christos Ikonomou, Good Will Come from the Sea, translated from the Greek by Karen Emmerich
Think back to 2015. To a time before Brexit but after Charlie Hebdo. Our political vocabulary for a brief moment that summer involved a string of Greek nouns: “Syriza,” “Varoufakis,” “Oxi.” Greece was negotiating its terms for a bailout with the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. Whatever happened in Greece, many thought, might be a sign of things to come in European politics. But, I remember thinking at the time, What about the Greeks? How were they telling the story of how things had gotten to this point? For English-language readers trying to answer this question, Christos Ikonomou’s short stories have been a breath of fresh air from the stuffy corridors in Brussels. His first translated collection, Something Will Happen, You’ll See, appeared in 2016. Now, English-language readers can read his second collection, Good Will Come from the Sea. Both are eloquently translated by Karen Emmerich. If the first collection focuses on desperation during the early years of the economic crisis, the second collection turns to the pessimism it has since engendered. “Greece had committed the perfect crime,” one character says, in the story “Kites in July,” as though reading a verdict. “Actual perpetrators: politicians. Moral perpetrators: voters. Motive: to buy people’s conscience. Weapon: money—foreign money, black market money, easy money. Victim: the nation.”
Danielle Pafunda, The Book of Scab
What if your parents read everything you wrote about them in your teenage journal? That primal anxiety forms the starting block of Danielle Pafunda’s The Book of Scab, which plunges into adolescent abjection via a series of diaristic letters actually addressed to the parents of a chronically sick and spurned teen girl. As the eponymous Scab fills in her mom and dad about her suicidal, horny, and drugged-out exploits and humiliations—a sort of candygoth Laura Palmer—she slinks out of the trappings of archetype as stealthily as she sneaks into her parents’ room to pinch them while they sleep. Pafunda has a well-deserved reputation as a leading poet of the feminine grotesque, but her first foray into prose is just as full of the peculiar music of shuddering flesh. Her sentences seem, like Scab, to get caught in bouts of retching, starting over three or four times before coming to an end. “Don’t think this is all barreling toward redemption,” Scab warns her reader, her parents, her future. “Don’t imagine for one second the girl will purify our culture for us or that the illiterate moment will yield.” Reckoning with the impossible pain and beauty of a life that will be universally shunned, even by her future self, Pafunda refuses the violent negation of expecting the young to grow out of their pain or die.