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.
Nina Stibbe, Man at the Helm
I’m reading Nina Stibbe’s Man at the Helm, a novel narrated by an English girl whose parents divorce in the late 1960s. It’s a comic gem of provincial urbanity, in the tradition of Barbara Pym and Dodie Smith.
Kimberly Hoang, Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work
Asian economic ascendance is usually rendered in trade balances and capital flows. Kimberly Hoang’s new ethnography, Dealing in Desire, reveals the intimate work of this global transformation. Hoang worked as a hostess in three different clubs in Ho Chi Minh City, observing the competition among and between Asian and Western business men as they engaged sex workers in assertions of their new status or in defense of their waning economic power. A feat of fieldwork and nimble analysis make Dealing in Desire a standout first book.
Tana French, The Secret Place
I started reading this smart whodunnit set in a posh Irish girls’ boarding school as I began copyedits for our review of it, and quickly became hooked. I was impressed by nearly every aspect of the novel—from its array of distinctly voiced characters to its intricate plotting, from its insight into adolescent psychology to how its narrative structure explored multiple temporalities in a philosophically compelling way—even as my appreciation was slightly undermined by the occasional appearance of mild supernatural elements in the friendship of the main quartet of girls. It would have been one thing if the existence of magic was revealed to be part of the fabric of this fictional universe; instead, here, the powers on display seem incidental to the plot and, more importantly, threaten to invalidate the book’s key psychological insight: is the intimacy of friendship among teen girls powerful enough to drive one to murder, or isn’t it?
François Laruelle, The Principles of Non-Philosophy, translated from the French by Nicola Ruczak and Anthony Paul Smith
Just when you thought things couldn’t be more immanent, along comes Laruelle with something even more radically immanent than radical immanence. This isn’t exactly a broadside against philosophy, but Laruelle is hell-bent on finding a way of thought that can’t be co-opted by the way philosophy thinks. On one’s nightstand, it’s a mind-bending glimpse of the “Real” before drifting off.
Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?
As Jim Holt explains in this fascinating and lively “existential detective story,” there’s a point where theology, scientific inquiry, and logic all reach a dead end: why is there something instead of nothing? Even though experimenters and theorists have created immensely successful explanations for the composition and history of reality, there’s a place beyond which thought, it seems, cannot go. Holt reads and talks to the greatest minds in theology, philosophy, history of science, astrophysics, quantum mechanics, mathematics, literature, and more to come to grips with the most profound (or most superfluous) question the human mind can ask.
Morgan Parker, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night
I returned home from #AWP15 with a very, very full suitcase. Among the many new releases and outrageous volumes of poetry that now threaten to devour my nightstand, there lies Morgan Parker’s first book, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, selected by Eileen Myles for the 2013 Gatewood Prize and recently published by Switchback Books. Parker is one of the most exciting emerging poets in the scene for a reason. These poems overflow with a powerful punching-up: unabashedly self-assured while simultaneously vulnerable, Parker navigates the crushing white supremacist world that all of us are complicit in. Her work will make you want to scream, weep, and dance simultaneously.
P. V. Glob, The Bog People: Iron Age Man Preserved
I tend to stay away from nonfiction during the semester simply because it’s nice to let my brain take a break. But Seamus Heaney kept referencing the bog bodies as I read through a collection of his works and the next thing I knew I was halfway through Glob’s book and was so terribly fascinated. It reads like a murder mystery story, starting with the unearthing of the bodies and working backward, and all the references to magic and mysticism keep it from being too dark as you actually sit and think about the subject matter. It’s a wonderful read.
Josep Pla, El Quadern Gris (The Gray Notebook), translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush
Written between 1918 and 1919 and first published in Catalan in 1966, The Gray Notebook was finally made available to anglophone readers last year. The book is a personal diary (with some fictional and literary license taken) that recounts his first years as a writer. As he points out at the beginning, the work is a self-imposed exercise on how to write. Although Josep Pla is a controversial figure in Catalonia for his complicity with the Franco regime, his apparently simple yet detail-rich prose will take the reader on a journey through the cosmopolitanism of Barcelona at the turn of the 20th century, and the ruralism of the Emporda, the northern seacoast of Catalunya.
Joseph O’Neill, The Dog
After Graham Greene, after Joseph Conrad, does the world really need another sardonic, privileged First-World isolato chasing his ghostly alter-ego through the abject Third World? I had a different answer to that question after reading The Dog, which is funnier than it is self-aware, and truer than it is tried. I was crying with laughter by the time I finished a stream-of-consciousness list that ended “This is the kind of thing that passes for my moment-to-moment inner life. It’s discouraging.”
Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown
At the moment, I’m reading Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste by another Public Books contributor, Philip Mirowski. It is a surprisingly hilarious, unsurprisingly insightful, analysis of the origin and astounding resilience of neoliberal thought despite mounting empirical evidence that neoliberalism is dangerous for most stakeholders. One of the subject headings is “Where there’s smoke, there’s toast,” which is just so much more likely than the more frequently repeated cousin to that phraseology. Mirowski marries masterful powers of observation with rigorous historical evidence and laughter-inducing turns of phrase.
Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America
Despite its widespread and continuing influence in American culture and politics, Black Power remains an all-too-dimly understood phenomenon for many Americans. Joseph, a historian at Tufts, has done the country at large—and this lowly dissertation writer, in particular—a great service in providing a remarkably readable account of Black Power’s major contributions from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. Joseph writes with a journalist’s vividness and a historian’s breadth of research, telescoping onto a few major figures while keeping the global landscape of Black Power in view. Though mostly sober, the book manages more than a view moments of genuine pathos and suspense, most successfully in describing the year leading up to Malcolm X’s death. Amid a thankfully growing awareness of continuing forms of racial inequity in the US, Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour is a rewarding read.
Francis Spufford, Red Plenty
If an episodic novel about the Soviet planned economy in the Khruschev-Brezhnev era doesn’t sound promising to you, you’re probably not alone. But Spufford’s book is a mad masterpiece, less traditional historical fiction than a rich panorama of a society in motion, and a penetrating investigation into the relationship between ideas and structures in history. It doesn’t hurt that the prose is as lush, ample, and vivid as the dream of Soviet abundance itself.