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.
Dan Jurafsky, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu
Ever wonder about the word “ketchup”? It appeared first in Chinese to describe a fermented fish sauce my children would be unlikely to spread on their burger buns. The book traces its spread from ports in Fujian to Europe and eventually to the United States where it lost its fishy connotation and gained tomato and sugary resonances. The Language of Food brims with such culinary travel tales revealing the histories of turkey, chocolate, and even the idea of menus themselves. As your server might say: Enjoy!
Natalia Ginzburg, Famiglia
A bit of mischief doubtless inspired the titles of these two late Ginzburg novellas, which have appeared together since their first publication. While Famiglia tells the story of an unlikely group of friends over the years and offers a fairly damning portrait of bourgeois insincerity and restlessness, Borghesia concerns an extended family living together in one apartment building. To some extent, then, the titles are ironic, but family is in fact what this book is really about, even as the word must be broadened to include not only its original, etymological sense of “household servants” but also and especially those attachments created not by marriage or procreation but elective affinities. Here these latter arrangements, occasionally maddening but freely entered into, offering the chance for genuine self-expression, find their antithesis in the bourgeois family, which on the contrary appears stifled by decorum and a virtual guarantor of mediocrity.
Danez Smith, [insert] boy
Wow, this book is incredible. Smith’s first full length, published by YesYes, is full of life and pain and fire, and each poem will knock you off your feet. This is the kind of poetry that devastates with every line—the kind of poetry that is as much a call to arms as it is finely crafted sculpture—mixing both beauty and rage in equal measure. Get your hands on a copy as soon as possible, if you haven’t already.
Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic
After a little persuasion by means of a friend forcing a book into my hands, I decided to pick up the Discworld series as my foray into the literary powerhouse that is Terry Pratchett. I was expecting something more along the lines of a trilogy or pentalogy rather than the 40 books that I’m now looking at, but after devouring The Colour of Magic during a morning commute, I decided to immediately proceed with Pratchett’s second installment. The book is a complete farce. It’s silly, fantastical, and absurd at times. But Pratchett also sneaks in some really profound observations, hidden in his satirical language, of course. If you’ve never read Terry Pratchett, you should. And you should definitely start somewhere in the Discworld.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
I have only one thing say about Coates’s book, because I don’t feel as if it’s mine to critique. I’ve heard complaints that the book isn’t comprehensive enough—particularly that it ignores the experiences of black female life—but I think we’d hear about Coates’s presumptuousness had he written about less intimate experiences. As is, he avoids holding too high a theoretical umbrella, preferring instead to apply his inquisitiveness toward his own life as lived, in the hope that his son’s own quest for understanding might at least be easier. In doing so, Coates shows more nuance than any armchair philosophizing could claim. This book belongs to all of us.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 4, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett
I was originally planning to wait until this book came out in paperback to start reading it, but a friend of mine got me the hardcover for my birthday (a signed copy, in fact, though Knausgaard’s signature is indistinguishable from a flatlining heart monitor). My disdain for children made Book 3 my least favorite so far, but the 18-year-old protagonist in this one is far more relatable to my own experience. In fact, it makes me want to follow in his footsteps, teaching in an isolated town while trying to start a writing a career. Alas, I don’t speak Norwegian.
George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
The edition I’m reading is worth reading for Lionel Trilling’s introduction alone, but I’ve been interested in revisiting Orwell for a while. Reading 1984 and Animal Farm in high school doesn’t take you much farther than examining Orwell’s anti-totalitarianism and his particular stance against Soviet-style communism. But I’ve always suspected that he was not a straight-forward Cold War liberal. The Orwell that emerges in these pages confirms those doubts—he’s funny, ambivalent, and honest. He recounts the quirks of Spanish rebels and the transnational solidarity of the Republican movement. As the left fractures, he captures the pathos of a squandered historical moment, as the communists turned on their anarchist comrades. Above all, Orwell reminds us of the costs of ideological purity and integrity in politics—both for ourselves and those with whom we must live.
Marilynne Robinson, Home
Ben Lerner, 10:04
Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift
Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
I am currently reading four books about identity and disappearance by four quite masterful stylists. I am just about done with Marilynne Robinson’s Home, a tale of quietly passionate religious figures that should be duller than it is. Still, I so admired Housekeeping that I was surprised to discover how indifferent I felt as I made my way through this novel of passionate abnegation in which a return to childhood places is at once something like death and like redemption. I have rushed ahead to see if anything does happen, and I can report there is a kind of twist, but it’s not all that twisty: more like the mitered corner on a well-made bed—pulling the sheet to just the right degree of tension, but not making anything too uncomfortable.Leaving Atocha Station was a favorite read last year, but Ben Lerner’s follow-up, 10:04, feels at once more forced and more predictable. I put the book down indefinitely when I found myself in a section about fraudulent fan letters from midcentury poets that may or may not be in some way real. 10:04 is a very funny book, and surprisingly sincere, so I feel a little bad that I found myself not caring enough about these metafictional matters to go forward. I anticipate a change of heart.
I am reading Saul Bellow due to an accident of the alphabet. Looking for some Baldwin earlier this summer, I found Humboldt’s Gift on the same shelf as Go Tell It On the Mountain. It was a happy accident. What in retrospect we may recognize with little regret but some fascination as the endangered intellectual machismo of the ’70s is reflected in the style as much as in the events of the novel. And even Bellow’s Chicago has an anthropological interest for me greater than the rural Iowa of Robinson in which everyone is so exquisitely courteous and weeding a garden is a major event or the familiar Brooklyn inhabited so amusingly by Lerner’s characters.
Perhaps it is the luminosity of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend that has cast so much shade on the other distinguished works in my pile. Half-way through this story about memory, friendship, and jealousy set in an impoverished corner of postwar Naples, I am stunned as I read and touched as I reflect on the novelist’s beautifully rendered vision of the passions of childhood and the vicissitudes of memory.
Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen
John Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever
I just picked up Between You & Me by Mary Norris, who has worked as a copyeditor at the New Yorker for decades. The book is a clear, accessible—and often humorous—guide through grammar and a tutorial on typography, but Norris is at her best when examining the punctuation proclivities (and peccadilloes) of famous writers.
I’ve also been making my way through The Stories of John Cheever (1978), winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. These tight, controlled tales about waspish, East Coast suburbanites often read as realist, but occasionally a spooky detail will add a dreamlike or hallucinatory effect that invariably raises the stakes. I recommend Cheever for evening reading; his precise prose is served best with a highball.
Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You
W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, translated from the German by Michael Hulse
I’ve fallen into the habit of reading two bedside books at once—a print version for when the lights are still on, and one on my iPad for when I wake up in the middle of the night and decide to read for a while without waking my husband (I’ve been avoiding the studies on the ill effects of reading from screens in the dark). The Rings of Saturn, Sebald’s dreamy and nightmarish travelogue, is my current hard copy. Its episodic structure, consisting of descriptive and photographic snapshots and meandering observations on subjects ranging from the “natural history of herring” to Roger Casement and Joseph Conrad, paves the way for my own unconscious landscapes. Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, part family drama, part mystery, is presently my 2:00 a.m. digital reading. I am about halfway through, torn between wanting to know what the ending will reveal about the dead teenage girl at its center and apprehending that this knowledge will be devastating. Especially at 2:00 a.m.
Louis-René des Forêts, Ostinato in Oeuvres complètes
I’ve recently been spellbound by Louis-René des Forêts’s Ostinato, a novel republished by Gallimard in 2015 in an edition of his complete works, with a useful biographical timeline and extracts from his correspondence edited by Dominique Rabaté.
“Ostinato,” a technical term for the repetition of a musical phrase that anchors a movement or composition, often called a hook or riff in jazz and pop, is the title word of Louis-René des Forêts fragmentary autobiographical narrative. Published in 1997, after the author’s decades-long withdrawal from the literary scene and retreat into silence following the accidental death of his daughter, the novel is ostinato by dint of its paratactic structure (“neither crescendo nor diminuendo”). Sharing affinities with the writing of his better-known cohort—Bataille, Blanchot, Beckett, Klossowski, and Duras—des Forêt’s syntax finds its way to the outer edges of communicability. The narrator is a remote “he,” metaphysically eviscerated, yet living on. Raymond Queneau nicknamed des Forêts “Bartleby,” and one can see why, since he arguably rewrote Melville’s tale as a study in what it means “to be” in obstination. Throughout the text, something recognizable as a will subsides and revives, performing—like a musical refrain—the refusal of servility. We see the schoolboy heaping scorn on the school motto HIC PVERI STVDIERE, OBEDIERE ET ORARE DOCENTVR! We watch him endure—arms raised above his body in a cowering cross, bare buttocks splayed—a sadistic violation by his classmates in the school refectory. We observe him discovering the resources of suspension, as he resolves to suspend the question of how to remain silent about his Resistance activities when captured and facing torture by the Germans. Obstination is presented not as a moral value earned through survival in adverse circumstances, but as an experience of not-quite-drowning while living under water. The narrator is mired in failed articulation and psychic breakdown, but a strange defiance persists. Bartleby’s politics is this defiance, inseparable from highly awkward, off-kilter syntactical sequences that capture the strange feeling of existence under conditions of fidelity to “tyrannical mutism.”